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Prime Minister Mahathir Wins New Five-Year Malaysian Term

By David Lamb
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad won another five-year term Monday in a bitterly contested election that capped more than a year of political and economic turmoil but left Mahathir’s image as an iron-willed survivor firmly intact.

His victory came as no surprise. After 18 years in power, Mahathir is Asia’s longest-serving elected leader. Aides close to him said he dearly wanted one last triumph to silence an emboldened opposition that is calling for democratic reform and criticizing the combative style of the 73-year-old physician-turned-politician.

In the end, the majority of Malaysians put desires for a less authoritarian form of governance on hold and endorsed what Mahathir prided himself on giving this country of 22 million people for a generation -- ethnic harmony, a growing middle class, political stability and impressive economic growth that averaged eight percent a year until the recession of 1998 hit.

“I’m tired of the prime minister in a lot of ways,” said shopkeeper Mohamad Bahrudin, who voted for Mahathir anyway. “But at least I know what I’m getting, and I know we lose it all if we don’t have stability. Mahathir delivered. The opposition? Who’s to say how they’d handle things? Maybe they’d upset everything.”

With 191 of 193 parliamentary seats decided by early Tuesday, Mahathir’s ruling coalition had won 148 -- substantially more than the two-thirds’ margin he considered necessary for a firm endorsement. The main opposition coalition won 40 seats, 17 more than it had held in the outgoing parliament.

The man Mahathir really ran against wasn’t even a candidate. He was in solitary confinement in a Malaysian prison, serving a six-year sentence for corruption and awaiting the resumption of his trial on sodomy charges. Anwar Ibrahim, 52, former deputy prime minister and once Mahathir’s heir apparent, maintains his innocence on all counts and says he was set up by his former mentor.

Campaigning lasted only eight days in the election, which was called on short notice. Mahathir had hoped his victory would exorcise Anwar’s ghost from the political landscape.