Malaysia PM set to win `free but unfair' vote



in Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia's election campaign is being rushed through in the shortest possible time - voters will go to the polls next Monday and Tuesday, barely two weeks after the national assembly was dissolved. But it has been long enough to demonstrate the limits to political tolerance in one of south- east Asia's most tigerish economies.

Yesterday the main opposition leader, Lim Kit Siang, challenged the Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, to carry out a threat to arrest him.

After Mr Lim addressed a rally without a police permit, Dr Mahathir warned that he would not hesitate to act if the leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) exceeded the limits. Accusing Mr Lim of trying to stir up Malaysia's volatile mix of races, the Prime Minister said: "We will act even during the general election ... whatever the world has to say."

Both men know an arrestwould be a godsend to the opposition, which has little hope of preventing the government from winning another two-thirds majority in parliament. But it gave Mr Lim an opportunity to point out that he has been jailed twice already under the Internal Security Act, which permits indefinite detention without trial.

This Act, and the restrictions on opposition campaigning, have led to the elections being described as "free but unfair".

Ridiculed by the government-dominated media, banned from holding large rallies and unable even to find poster-printers willing to accept its business, the opposition has been reduced to door-to-door canvassing and stringing up bunting with the rocket symbol of the DAP.

Yet every tree in Kuala Lumpur is decked with flags carrying the symbol of the ruling National Front, a pair of scales, and every pole carries the face of Dr Mahathir, who looks younger than a 69-year-old who has been in power for 14 years.

When the National Front romps to victory next week, no one will claim the ballots were tampered with. Nor, despite their difficulties in making themselves heard, are opposition leaders afraid to speak.

Mr Lim claims the very existence of the opposition is an issue, but Dr Mahathir's autocratic behaviour obscures the fact that Malaysia retains a degree of political pluralism unusual in the region.

Its federal structure permits the opposition to build regional power bases. In the simultaneous state elections next week, Kelantan is expected to retain a coalition led by the Islamist PAS party. Kelantan is the poorest and most traditionalist state in peninsular Malaysia, and suspicion that Dr Mahathir may be willing to temper Islamic principles if they interfere with economic growth runs high there.

Mr Lim's DAP, mainly supported by Chinese who resent the economic privileges of the Malay majority, hopes to capture Penang, the richest and most industrialised state, and the only one where Chinese voters are dominant. There have been suggestions that such an event might prompt Dr Mahathir to weaken the powers of the states after the election.

It would probably be enough for Dr Mahathir to stand on his economic record, as Malaysia has enjoyed real growth of more than 8 per cent for seven years and is expected to record 8.9 per cent this year. The Prime Minister argues the country would not have got far if he had left anything to chance.

However, success has bred complacency, which could be dangerous for his ambition to hold office until the turn of the century. A drop in the vote for the National Front might set off moves to persuade him to retire.