Malaysia polls turn into fight for moral high ground

KOTA BARU, Malaysia Mon Feb 25, 2008 12:56pm IST

Supporters of Malaysia's main opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) shout slogans as they wait for their candidates to submit their nomination forms ahead of elections in Pengkalan Chepa, in the opposition stronghold state of Kelantan February 24, 2008. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

Supporters of Malaysia's main opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) shout slogans as they wait for their candidates to submit their nomination forms ahead of elections in Pengkalan Chepa, in the opposition stronghold state of Kelantan February 24, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad

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KOTA BARU, Malaysia (Reuters) - Malaysia's election is turning into a battle for the religious high ground among majority Muslims, with the prime minister's party offering to build or repair at least 500 mosques to woo voters.

Malaysia goes to the polls on March 8, with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's UMNO party seeking to regain the northeastern Kelantan state from an Islamic party that has been in power there since 1990.

The fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), led by clerics who promote "purer" Islamic values, is locked in a tough poll battle with UMNO now playing the same religious card.

"If we want to build mosques, is there something wrong with it?" said Awang Adek Hussin, a deputy minister heading the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) campaign in Kelantan.

Awang Adek, a former central banker, recalled that the first thing Prophet Mohammad did when he migrated to Madina from Mecca was to build a mosque.

"When we win, we will usher in a new era in Kelantan by building a grand mosque," he said on Sunday in Kelantan's capital, adding that UMNO has also pledged to repair some 500 old mosques in the state.

The fight for Muslim votes is also an issue in neighbouring Terengganu state, traditionally a PAS stronghold.

"UMNO and PAS are engaged in a battle: 'I'm more Islamic than you are'," said political analyst Ooi Kee Beng.

He said UMNO, which has in the past branded PAS as being too extreme, appeared to be deepening its own Islamic agenda.

"UMNO is playing religious politics. It is pushing the religious thing a bit too far," he said.

The poll is considered certain to return Abdullah's ruling coalition -- which has ruled the nation since independence in 1957 -- to power, although with a reduced majority.

SEPARATE PRAYERS

The deep-rooted political rivalry between UMNO and PAS is spilling over into village life.

Some mosques in Kelantan and Terengganu are linked to PAS loyalists while others are loyal to UMNO supporters. If there is only one mosque in a village, the two sides have in the past held separate prayers.

The divide over mosques is evident in the Terengganu village of Rusila, the political base of PAS leader Hadi Awang.

The village's sprawling mosque complex also houses his home, a madrassa and a party office.The two-storey mosque, draped in flags, is packed with his supporters during Friday prayers.

Non-PAS supporters attend a nearby mosque built by the UMNO government, residents say.

PAS is also using next month's polls to accuse the UMNO government in Terengganu of demolishing a mosque built by PAS when it ruled the oil-rich state between 1999 and 2004.

UMNO denies the claim, saying the structure was illegally built. "Terengganu has built 67 new mosques in the last four years," said Kelantan's Awang Adek. "In Kelantan, the (state) government in the last 18 years has not built a single mosque."

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