Malaysia's longtime ruling party is meeting to select a new crop of leaders after a series of electoral setbacks. But it faces a stiff challenge to reverse a rapid slide in popularity at a time when Malaysia's trade-dependent economy is sinking into recession.
At stake is the stability of a political order that has guided the multiracial country for five decades. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) leads a coalition government that has delivered economic development but appears unable to tackle increasing racial tensions and calls for greater freedom.
At the four-day convention, which began Tuesday, UMNO officials have hammered a message of reform and renewal in order to win back voters. But a scandal over delegate vote-buying, which led to the disqualification of several candidates, has only added to the public perception of an organization that is mired in graft and out of touch with ordinary voters.
Seizing on this weakness, opponents are turning up the heat on Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is due to replace outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi next week. By convention, the leader of UMNO becomes the country's prime minister. Mr. Najib is running uncontested for the post, replacing Mr. Badawi.
Earlier this month, an opposition lawmaker was suspended from Parliament after he accused Najib of involvement in a sensational 2006 murder of a Mongolian interpreter. Najib has denied any link to the case, which has snared two of his bodyguards, who are currently on trial for the murder.
A close aide to Najib, who admitted having an affair with the interpreter, was acquitted last year in the same trial.
Opposition activists warn that Najib is trying to silence his critics by using repressive laws, adding to tensions. This week authorities suspended publication of two opposition newspapers and sent riot police to break up rallies led by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Last year, a blogger was jailed for two months after airing more allegations over Najib's link to the 2006 murder case.
Supporters of Najib, the UK-educated scion of a political dynasty, argue that Malaysia lost focus under Badawi, a soft-spoken Muslim scholar, and requires more forceful leadership, particularly in an economic downturn. The government has forecast that the economy, which relies on natural resources and manufacturing, could shrink this year by 1 percent.
But it's unclear if a more authoritarian hand would stay the challenge to UMNO's grip on power. Instead, it could undermine any attempt to remake the party and reach out to young voters, who are plugged into Malaysia's lively blogosphere, bypassing stodgy pro-government media.
"With new media, it's a more level playing field, in terms of information to the public. While there are factions of the party (UMNO) that favor a return to more hard-line ways, it's going to be more difficult," says Ibrahim Suffian, who runs Merdeka Center, an independent polling group in Kuala Lumpur.
A recent poll by the group found that only 19 percent of the majority-Malay population wanted UMNO to lead the country. Most respondents said the party's biggest problem was corruption.
This week's convention comes one year after the ruling coalition saw its majority slashed in Parliament. Two subsequent by-election wins have bolstered the opposition's claim of a momentum for change. Three more by-elections are scheduled for April 7, affording a quick test of the government's popularity.
Under UMNO's rules, prospective leaders need to secure endorsements from division chiefs, who owe their loyalty to the existing leadership.
Only one other candidate, former finance minister Razaleigh Hamzah, tried to run this time, but failed to get enough nominations, leaving Najib the only name on the ballot.
This does a disservice to the party at a time when it needs to ask itself tough questions, says Clive Kessler, a sociologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, who studies Malaysian politics.
He says the party's inertia seems almost impervious to change. "The only way possibly to reform UMNO is to get in someone with real stature who has not been part of the system for the last 15 to 20 years," he says.