Malaysia's ruling party postponed key elections to choose its leaders, triggering speculation Friday that the increasingly unpopular prime minister will step down within months, reported CNN.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told reporters after chairing an emergency meeting of the United Malays National Organization that the party will hold its elections in March instead of December as scheduled.
Asked why this was being done, he told reporters: To "facilitate early transition." He refused to elaborate or say if this meant he would not contest the post of party president. Traditionally, the UMNO president becomes the prime minister.
He said his decision to contest or not would be known before Oct. 9 when the party's district officials start meeting to nominate candidates for the party elections.
"It will be my decision whether to contest or not. You can go on guessing, but the decision will be mine," Abdullah said.
After leading the UMNO-dominated National Front ruling coalition to disastrous results in general elections last March, Abdullah has been facing calls to step down to take responsibility for the debacle.
Abdullah initially said he would hand over power to his deputy Najib Razak in 2010 instead of 2012 when his term ends. But that did not satisfy the dissidents, who were apparently threatening to embarrass Abdullah by not nominating him for the party president's post.
"We have taken cognizance of the views of the party members. I think there is a lot of wisdom in today's decision," Najib told reporters.
By postponing the elections three months, UMNO's top leaders appear to have struck a compromise that would allow the 69-year-old Abdullah to exit gracefully.
"If we want to make it (my departure) early, the original 2010 (deadline) does not arise," he said.
Abdullah, however, denied he was facing pressure from UMNO leaders, saying only "two or three" of them felt he should step down sooner.
He also said he has no plans to go on leave until March, saying he has much work to do. Abdullah has been claiming that he wants to quit only after completing his program of reforms in the economy, judiciary and administration -- goals that have made little progress in the five years he has been in office.
The postponement of the party election would "calm the situation which has been heating up. It will protect the party and protect its dignity," said UMNO information chief Muhammad Muhammad Taib.
The urgency to boot out Abdullah is also partly due to concerns that he may be incapable of dealing with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is threatening to engineer enough defections from the ruling party to bring down the government.
Anwar's People's Alliance coalition won an unprecedented 82 seats in the 222-member Parliament in March and took control of five of Malaysia's 13 states. Abdullah's National Front coalition now has only a 28-seat majority in Parliament.
The National Front, a coalition of 14 parties representing Malaysia's various ethnic groups, has governed the country since independence from Britain in 1957.