Malaysia PM enters Islamist den to win Muslim vote

KUALA LUMPUR Sat Mar 1, 2008 3:00am EST

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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's prime minister waded into battle for political control of the Muslim heartland on Saturday, staging a rally of about 20,000 supporters at the site of a recent, bloody anti-government protest.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi used the rally to attack the opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia, an Islamist party that poses one of his biggest challenges as he seeks to retain an overwhelming parliamentary majority at polls on March 8.

"Islam is a religion of development," Abdullah told the rally in northeastern Terengganu state, at the same spot where in September police shot and wounded two protesters as they tried to break up a PAS-backed demonstration.

He portrayed PAS as anti-development and promised that his multi-racial coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), would do more to advance the economy of the oil-rich state, which was controlled by PAS for four years until the coalition won it back in 2004.

"I believe the people of Terengganu want more development in the state. The BN will push for further development in the next five years," he said at the open-air rally in a public park.

BN has governed at the national level since independence from Britain in 1957, but it fails to dominate in Terengganu and trails PAS in neighboring Kelantan state, which the Islamists have ruled at the state-assembly level for 18 years.

"Why doesn't PAS want development?" Abdullah said.

He criticized PAS's practice of issuing Islamic decrees, or fatwahs. In the past, the party has even decreed that its supporters would go to heaven if they voted for PAS.

"It's not beneficial for our people or our country. They are just jealous of us. They have limited capability."

The Barisan Nasional government is considered certain to be re-elected, but with a reduced majority because of popular discontent over rising prices, racial tensions and street crime.

A large protest vote could undermine Abdullah's leadership and also influence the future shape of social and economic policy over the next five years.

(Reporting by Jalil Hamid, writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

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