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Cablegate: Pm Abdullah's Position Eroded After Tumultuous Week

VZCZCXRO1603
OO RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHKL #0805/01 2561233
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 121233Z SEP 08
FM AMEMBASSY KUALA LUMPUR
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 1639
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 KUALA LUMPUR 000805

SIPDIS

FOR EAP/MTS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/12/2018
TAGS: PGOV KDEM MARR MY
SUBJECT: PM ABDULLAH'S POSITION ERODED AFTER TUMULTUOUS WEEK

REF: KUALA LUMPUR 787

Classified By: Political Section Chief Mark D. Clark for reasons 1.4 (b
and d).

SUMMARY
-------

1. (C) Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has seen his political
position eroded during a tumultuous week of mounting
challenges from within his United Malay National Organization
(UMNO), his coalition partners, and the opposition. While
struggling to regain cohesion within his National Front (BN)
coalition in the face of inter-racial tensions, UMNO leaders
have raised new questions over Abdullah's 2010 transition to
his deputy Najib Tun Razak, creating fresh doubts that
Abdullah can gain his party's reelection in December.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim dispatched his lieutenants to
Taiwan with the avowed aim to complete talks with BN members
of Parliament who would crossover to bring down Abdullah's
government. At the same time, the Opposition alliance stated
the September 16 deadline to topple the government could
slip. The chief of the armed forces clarified that the
military would remain apolitical, but could be called out via
proper legal channels to assist with internal security.
Abdullah emerged from an UMNO meeting to state that the
government could use the Internal Security Act (ISA), and its
detention without trial provisions, to preserve internal
security; on September 12 the government made good on this
threat by detaining controversial blogger Raja Petra. End
Summary.

RACIST COMMENTS PROMPT UMNO LEADERS MEETING
-------------------------------------------

2. (SBU) To quell growing animosity and tension between UMNO
and its ethnic Chinese partners in the National Front
coalition resulting from caustic racist comments from Penang
UMNO division leader Ahmad Ismail, PM Abdullah was forced to
hold a meeting of the BN Supreme Council on September 9 and a
gathering of the UMNO Supreme Council on September 10. The
BN leaders referred the matter to UMNO to take action against
its own member. After a three hour meeting, the UMNO Supreme
Council decided to suspend Ahmad from the party for three
years, stripping him of all of his official duties. Despite
this ruling, Ahmad remained defiant and suggested his Penang
division quickly would create a new role for him. Some of
Abdullah's detractors in the party, like Selangor warlord
Khir Toyo, came to Ahmad's defense. The Malaysian Chinese
Association (MCA) and the Chinese-dominated Gerakan party
voiced their appreciation for UMNO's decision, but also
called for a stop to further racially incendiary remarks.

2010 TRANSITION UNRAVELING?
---------------------------

3. (C) As Abdullah and UMNO attempted to douse heated racial
tensions that damaged the BN coalition, this week also
witnessed the fraying of UMNO's acquiescence to Abdullah's
plan to hand over power to DPM Najib in 2010. The most
direct blow came from International Trade and Industry
Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, an UMNO Vice President who is
considered a potential candidate for Deputy Prime Minister
should Abdullah step down. Muhyiddin stated on September 10
that Abdullah should resign well before the June 2010
transition date. Muhyiddin noted that the initial promise of
this two-month old proposal, meant to assuage concerns about
Abdullah's sagging popularity and party support, had now
"sunk away". Reacting during a televised press encounter,
Abdullah was visibly angered by Muhyiddin's comment.
Abdullah questioned why Muhyiddin would challenge the
transition plan when the UMNO Supreme Council had already
approved the transition and its timing. On September 12,
Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak appeared to contradict
Abdullah and shift his position away from Abdullah's deal,
stating that delegates at the December UMNO party elections
should approve the transition and its timetable. Other
important UMNO leaders have revived their calls to eliminate
high quotas for the number of nominations needed to contest
leadership positions in the party polls, a system which now
heavily favors Abdullah.

MAHATHIR SEEKS RETURN TO UMNO
-----------------------------

4. (SBU) Complicating matters further for Abdullah, former PM
and former UMNO President Mahathir, who quit UMNO on May 19
after expressing disgust with Abdullah's leadership, is
considering returning to the party. A smiling UMNO Vice
President Muhyiddin told reporters September 9 that Mahathir
was persuaded by him, Tengku Razaleigh and several other
veteran UMNO leaders at a private meeting at Mahathir's
residence on September 6 to rejoin UMNO to help "fix the
problems" afflicting the party. Foreign Minister and senior
UMNO official Rais Yatim later joined other party leaders in
welcoming Mahathir's proposed return to the fold. Mahathir
reportedly is now backing his former nemesis, Tengku
Razaleigh, to unseat Abdullah in the December UMNO party
elections. Commenting tersely on the possible return of
Mahathir, whose harsh criticisms of the Prime Minister
continue unabated, Abdullah stated September 11 that the UMNO
Supreme Council will decide on the issue as "this is a party
matter."

THE OPPOSITION ATTEMPTS TO COUNTER TAIWAN PLOY...
--------------------------------------------- ----

5. (SBU) Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim meanwhile sought to
keep the pressure on UMNO and BN by dispatching four senior
officials from this Peoples Justice Party's (PKR) to Taiwan,
supposedly to meet with BN MP's who may crossover to bring
down Abdullah's government. BN had hastily arranged a "study
tour" to Taiwan for BN members of Parliament, September 8-17,
in what is widely viewed as a ploy to thwart September 16
crossovers. PKR said their officials would attempt to
finalize the crossovers (the opposition requires 30 to claim
the majority and topple Abdullah's government).

OPPOSITION ADMITS SEPTEMBER 16 COULD SLIP
-----------------------------------------

6. (SBU) As PKR announced its officials were going to Taiwan
to finalize crossovers, the opposition People's Alliance
(Pakatan) also issued a statement suggesting that the
September 16 deadline for toppling BN could slip. The
three-party alliance of PKR, the Democratic Action Party
(DAP) and the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), in a September
11 release, explained that the September 16 deadline may have
to be postponed due to the Taiwan trip by the BN MPs.
However, the coalition expressed confidence that a change of
federal government "would happen soon." Subsequently, BN
officials announced that many of the MPs would be returning
early from Taiwan, hinting that this should eliminate excuses
for Anwar not meeting his September 16 deadline.

ARMED FORCES TO STAY OUT OF POLITICS, BUT STILL ON CALL
--------------------------------------------- ----------

7. (SBU) Malaysian Armed Forces Chief General Abdul Aziz
Zainal stated at a press conference September 11 that the
armed forces have been and will remain apolitical. The
General gave his assurance following questions and criticism
from opposition and civil society quarters over his statement
on September 9, urging the government to take stern action
against anyone stoking racial sentiments in the country and
thereby threatening national unity. "The armed forces are
highly professional and apolitical", Abdul Aziz clarified on
September 11, and would only get involved in internal matters
if requested through the legal process by the authorities or
police. He explained, "Our (the military's) secondary role
is to support the police and government agencies in any form
of operations where our presence is requested -- such as for
internal security, humanitarian and disaster relief
operations.8 General Abdul Aziz refused to comment when
asked by reporters whether he would support a new government,
adding "I do not know of any (impending) changes in
government."

ABDULLAH THREATENS USE OF THE INTERNAL SECURITY ACT
--------------------------------------------- ------

8. (SBU) PM Abdullah stated September 10, following the UMNO
Supreme Council meeting, that he did not rule out the
possibility of invoking the Internal Security Act (ISA),
which allows detention without trial for those who threaten
national security. He added that the Home Minister, who has
the authority to approve ISA detentions, would "think twice
or even three times" before deciding to take that step, but
"if the minister thinks that it is an appropriate action to
be taken, then he will take it."

9. (SBU) The Prime Minister said that in the September 10
Cabinet meeting, his Ministers expressed concern and
described race relations in the country as showing "not so
good signs," and that a number of sensitive issues which were
not openly discussed before were being raised. Although the
government has managed to control the situation thus far, he
added that "we cannot allow a fiery situation to prevail as
it could jeopardize the peace and security of our country."
Responding to a question on whether the government would
curtail freedom of speech in the country, the PM explained
that there was no such thing as absolute freedom anywhere in
the world, noting "People cannot just say whatever they like,
in the name of free speech, to the extend that it can offend
and hurt others and jeopardize security."

MAKING GOOD ON THE THREAT
-------------------------

10. (SBU) Abdullah's government made good on the threat by
arresting controversial blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin at his
home on September 12, using the ISA. Home Minister Syed
Hamid confirmed to reporters that police had detained Raja
Petra under the ISA provision for persons who pose threats to
"security, peace and public order." Raja Petra has
repeatedly enraged the BN government by, among other things,
blunting attacking senior political leaders, connecting DPM
Najib to a murder scandal, and condemning the sodomy
allegations against Anwar. Raja Petra currently faces
sedition and defamation charges. Septel provides more
details of the arrest and provides suggested press guidance.

COMMENT
-------

11. (C) Abdullah has endured a rough week, one that has
eroded his political strength. The current tone of the
direct and indirect challenges to his position are similar to
those he faced in the first six weeks after the March 8
election debacle when his continuation in office was an open
question. Two factors are increasing the pressure on
Abdullah at this point. First, UMNO has become unnerved in
the face of Anwar Ibrahim's threat to bring down the
government this month, and the greater Anwar's menace, the
more UMNO elites consider replacing Abdullah with a stronger
figure. Second, the UMNO divisional elections, which select
delegates to the December party polls, begin on October 9
almost immediately following the Muslim holidays at the end
of the Muslim fasting month. Those leaders who wish to
challenge Abdullah's reelection and his two-year transition
to Najib must stake out their positions now and maneuver for
support, or the opportunity quickly will be lost.

KEITH

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