March 10th, 2008 09:26 EST
Badawi in as Malaysian Prime Minister
By Luis Ramirez
Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has been sworn in for another term, despite calls for him to step down following his ruling coalition's stunning losses to the opposition in last Saturday's elections. The country, a model for stability and economic prosperity in Southeast Asia, faces uncertainty after Mr. Badawi's ruling coalition suffered the deepest election losses in its 51 years in power.
Malaysian stocks tumbled Monday to the point where trading had to be halted temporarily. Analysts said investors are nervous about whether a multi-party Malaysia will be able to maintain the kind of stability that has drawn foreign investment and made its economy the envy of many of its neighbors in the region.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi had been under pressure from some within his own Barisan Nasional - or National Front - coalition to step down after the coalition lost its two-thirds majority in the parliament for the first time since 1969. In the last elections, Barisan Nasional won more than 90 percent of seats. Now it has only a simple majority with 63 percent control. Five states went to opposition parties.
Mr. Badawi was sworn in Monday after resisting calls for his resignation. In what observers described as a move to preserve stability, his party in the coalition on Monday said it would continue to support him. Analysts say Barisan Nasional will have to make substantive reforms if the coalition is to survive the next election.
The election on Saturday followed months of racial tensions in which minorities, especially ethnic Indians, protested what they say is discrimination by majority Muslim Malays.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Mr. Badawi reaffirmed the the Barisan Nasional's obligation to serve the needs of all groups.
"It is not just exclusively for any particular community. We speak for the minorities, whose representatives are not in the government, in the cabinet," he said. "We speak for them, too."
Malaysia prides itself as a model of ethnic harmony between its majority Muslim Malays and its minority Chinese and Indian populations. The elections saw the two major ethnic minority groups, the Indians and the Chinese, going in large numbers to the opposition. Analysts say this was a sign of their disillusionment with the Barisan Nasional and what minorities see as its failure to address their needs.
Analysts, however, say it was Muslim Malay voters that dealt the coalition the largest blow in elections Saturday. Many Malays are angry over issues including corruption, rising food prices, a lack of transparency in the government, and rising crime. Anger and criticism of the government over these issues is seldom reported in Malaysia's tightly controlled mainstream media. In the run-up to the elections, many people turned to independent Web sites like Malaysiakini.com to get more balanced news and to vent their frustrations.
In fact, extremely heavy traffic has made the Web site almost inaccessible, forcing the site to offer a stripped-down version to make it available to its audience.
Malaysiakini.com's co-founder and editor, Steven Gan, tells VOA that the issues featured on his site crossed racial lines and he says the result was devastating for the ruling coalition on election day.
"Some people describe it as a political tsunami. I think that's pretty apt," he said. "There has been a palpable change of mindset among Malaysians and first time that you see, I think a swing of voters across the board, not just non-Malays, but also Malays."
The elections signal a comeback for former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was imprisoned ten years ago after falling out of favor with the ruling coalition ten years ago. He was later released. He could not run in these elections because he is banned from politics until next month. However, he campaigned on behalf of his People's Justice Party, which won the largest number of opposition seats in parliament. Mr. Anwar wants an end to Malaysia's system of race-based politics.