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Mahathir's new cabinet leaves succession open, analysts say

Date: 12 Dec 1999
Time: 19:14:46


Mahathir's new cabinet leaves succession open, analysts say

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 12 (AFP) - Malaysia's ageing Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has, for better or worse, opted for continuity during his last term in office with the post-election cabinet announced Friday, both supporters and opponents agree.

What he failed to do, analysts say, was indicate a likely successor for when the Mahathir era, which began in 1981, finally ends.

Mahathir retained Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as deputy premier and home minister and kept Daim Zainuddin as finance minister. Most other top posts were also unchanged.

But the premier, according to some analysts, sidelined two potential successors -- shifting Najib Tun Razak from the powerful education ministry, traditionally a springboard to the top, and excluding Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah altogether.

Razaleigh nearly unseated Mahathir in a United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) poll in 1987 and founded the breakaway Semangat 46 party before returning to the ruling party fold in 1996 and spearheading its largely unsuccessful election challenge in Kelantan state.

The UMNO is the dominant party in the ruling National Front coalition.

Asked why Razaleigh was not brought into the cabinet, Mahathir crushingly replied Friday: "We have taken into consideration various criteria in the appointment of ministers.

"If a person does not fit in with the criteria, we cannot appoint him, no matter who he is."

Marina Yusof of the opposition National Justice Party, described the exclusion was "a big slap" to Razaleigh and showed Mahathir still bore a grudge against him.

Mahathir, Asia's longest-serving elected leader and who turns 74 this month, has also announced this would be his last term in office.

Most analysts believe his likeliest successor is his current deputy, Abdullah. But they say Abdullah could face challenges when the UMNO general assembly meets sometime next year to elect its top officials.

The UMNO's elections for president and deputy president, held every three years, are sometimes seen as more important than general elections since the winners automatically become premier and deputy premier as long as the party stays in power.

The National Front and its predecessor have ruled the country ever since it gained independence in 1957.

Najib -- the son of a former premier -- has "had his wings clipped" with the move from education to defence, according to Bruce Gale of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Singapore.

He said new education minister Musa Mohamed, an academic and political novice, "seems to be a conservative very much in Mahathir's line and can take a hard line with students since he doesn't have to be concerned about (protecting) a power base in UMNO."

Gale said Mahathir increasingly seemed to be "circling the wagons" and isolating himself -- appointing or reappointing people whom he could trust and who had either little ambition or little power within UMNO.

These included Musa, the finance minister, Daim, and international trade minister Razidah Aziz, who also reappointed.

But the premier "may face some problems down the line" from supporters of Najib and Razaleigh, he said.

UMNO officials from the northeastern opposition-ruled states of Kelantan and Terengganu, which got no ministerial representation, might also feel the national leadership had deserted them, Gale said.

He saw Abdullah as the likeliest successor despite his lack of strong party support. "But he may be challenged. There are several people in the party who will be quite upset."

Najib and Razaleigh, Gale said, "are important figures, ambitious but sidelined."

Sani Hamid, analyst with Singapore-based Standard and Poor's MMS, called the cabinet "a well-balanced mix of continuity and change."

"It is generally a good sign for investors because the team which led the country out of the recession...are still there."

But Sani said Mahathir's successor "still remains an open-ended question and will only be known during the UMNO general assembly next year, when party elections are held."

Lim Kit Siang, chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party, said Abdullah's succession claim "is still quite precarious."

His position, Lim said, had been strengthened not because of full endorsement from premier or party but because Najib and Razaleigh had been weakened.

But an analyst who declined to be identified said Abdullah looked more secure than ever with Razaleigh not in the picture -- although he described Najib's move as not really a demotion.

Last changed: December 12, 1999