Abdullah secures position as the undisputed leader

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Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has secured his position as the country's undisputed leader by winning the ruling party presidency, brushing aside a surprise challenge from a veteran prince-politician.

Abdullah, who became premier when Dr Mahathir Mohamad retired last October, took full control of the powerful Umno at the weekend when he won enough nominations from party divisions to avoid a vote at the congress in September.

His challenger, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a former finance minister in the 1980s, won only the single endorsement of his own division against 166 nominations for Abdullah, with just 15 more divisions still to decide.

Abdullah's victory finally puts to rest doubts about his support within Umno, which has headed Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional coalition since independence from Britain in 1957, analysts said.

It also consolidates the mandate he won in March general elections for his brand of "modern and progressive" Islamic governance, which helped roll back gains made by Islamic hardliners in the previous elections in 1999.

Long-term role

Sceptics however continued to question Abdullah's authority within the faction-ridden Umno even after the election victory, suggesting that powerful forces within the party might be unhappy with his pledges to crack down on corruption.

"When he took over from Mahathir, Abdullah was viewed as a stop-gap measure, a seat-warmer, but no one should underestimate him," said National University of Malaysia political scientist P Ramasamy.

"Winning the Umno presidency unopposed after his election mandate shows that his role is a long-term one."

Malaysian Strategic Research Centre executive director Abdul Razak Baginda noted that Abdullah, handpicked by Mahathir, had never before been tested in Umno elections and winning the presidency unopposed confirmed he had the support of the party.

"The Umno presidency is his final confirmation as the number one leader of the country and that for the next three to five years, there will be no dispute. The party is rallying behind Abdullah and it's a signal that everybody wants to move forward."

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak also won the post of deputy president unopposed. Under Malaysia's parliamentary system, the Umno president and deputy president traditionally become prime minister and deputy premier.

Ku Li's political wilderness

Razaleigh's ignominious defeat represented "a changing of the guard", the New Straits Times said in an editorial comment, noting that many of his contemporaries, including Mahathir, were "either retired or thrust into the political wilderness".

Razaleigh, a 67-year-old Malay prince from the poverty-stricken eastern Kelantan state, narrowly lost to Mahathir in a bitter contest for the party leadership in 1987 that split Umno.

As leader of one of the world's most developed Muslim nations Abdullah's policies and low-key international diplomacy, which contrast strongly with Mahathir's strident style, have also won him friends abroad.

He was due to meet US President George W Bush at the White House on Monday before going on to France and Britain for talks with President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"Malaysia took an anti-Western position under Mahathir and we were rejected by the West. But Abdullah's moderate position now will provide Malaysia with the role as a bridge between the Islamic world and the Western world," said Abdul Razak.

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