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May 22, 2008

UMNO pledges support for Abdullah

Malaysia's ruling party's top leadership vowed Thursday to continue supporting Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, allowing him to meet attacks from his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad that have threatened to tear the party apart, Kyodo news agency reported.

The United Malays National Organization's supreme council held a three-hour emergency meeting Wednesday night that stretched into Thursday to discuss Mahathir's decision earlier this week to quit the party he led for 22 years until his retirement in 2003.

Mahathir, 82, said he was quitting Monday to protest Abdullah's leadership. He said he would only rejoin UMNO if Abdullah steps down. Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, also UMNO's deputy president, said the party has accepted Mahathir's resignation. But top leaders pledged to stand by Abdullah.

"The supreme council has decided to continue to support the leadership of the prime minister," Najib said after the meeting.

UMNO had feared the move by Mahathir, who still wields considerable influence within the party, would spark an exodus from UMNO at a time when the party is already cracking into various factions in the aftermath of recent election losses.

The in-fighting is made worse by intense lobbying for UMNO offices that will be up for renewal or change at party elections in December.

There have been reports of dozens of members following Mahathir's out of UMNO, but Najib said he is optimistic there will be no mass resignations.

"We are confident that the party members will be loyal to UMNO and will continue to remain within the party," he said. Following his decision to quit, Mahathir laid out his strategy to get Abdullah ousted as party leader.

Writing on his blog, Mahathir urged elected representatives of the UMNO-led National Front coalition, or BN, to leave their respective parties and remain in Parliament as independents rather than joining the opposition coalition, the Alliance Front.

BN controls 140 seats in the 222-seat Parliament. The opposition holds 82 seats and needs just over 30 BN defections to form the government. So far, however, all 79 UMNO lawmakers, including Mahathir's youngest son Mukhriz, have indicated they will stay in the party.

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