By Mark Bendeich
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi goes into the next election knowing only one thing for sure, that he will win.
The electoral landscape is so favorable to his ruling coalition that his re-election is considered a formality, but Abdullah's own personal support has been sliding fast.
Four years ago, he led the coalition, a group of race-based parties, to a record election victory, promising to tackle corruption and to make government more accountable and open.
He had just taken over power from Mahathir Mohamad, whose 22-year-old administration was dogged by tales of sleaze, and opinion polls gave Abdullah a 90 percent approval rating.
It seemed that Abdullah, despite being Mahathir's hand-picked successor, would blow the cobwebs off Malaysian politics.
A moderate Muslim known as the "Mr Clean" of Mahathir's old cabinet, he seemed just the man to galvanize the nation's divided races and religions -- Muslim Malays, Buddhist Chinese and Hindu Indians -- and rally them to a new cause of reform.
Unfortunately, it did not work out that way.
Four years on, racial tensions have risen, not fallen, and the corruption campaign's biggest catch has turned out to be its first, the 2004 arrest of a former lands minister whose case is still wending its way through the courts.
Worse, anti-government protests drew crowds of more than 10,000 on to the streets of Kuala Lumpur late last year, the biggest since Mahathir faced a popular revolt in the late 1990s.
Instead of bowing to calls from lawyers and human-rights groups to tolerate peaceful rallies, Abdullah's administration used tear gas, water cannon and arrests to break them up.
He also used a controversial internal-security law to arrest five organizers of the biggest protest, by more than 10,000 ethnic Indians, and detain them indefinitely, without charge.
But racial tensions are not Abdullah's only problem on the eve of elections. Rising living costs and popular anger over street crime are also eating away at his popularity.
Abdullah's approval rating recently hit an all-time low of 61 percent, a poor result for a country where the opposition is weak, the press pro-government and the electoral system skewed toward rural voters who back Abdullah's government.
Abdullah will face voters in coming weeks, most likely during the first half of March, after he called for an election on Wednesday.
Born on the island of Penang on November 26, 1939, Abdullah takes pride in his mixed Malay, Arab and Chinese blood. During his upbringing, he went to a Methodist boys' school in the morning and an Islamic school in the afternoon.His father was a founder member of the main ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and his grandfather a respected Islamic preacher who called the faithful to prayer.
The young Abdullah grew up in a secure but not wealthy family. As a young boy, he shared a room with his grandfather and often read books by candlelight so as not to disturb him.
Abdullah began his career as a civil servant in 1964 and five years later found himself at the centre of the political stage, after hundreds of people were slaughtered in race riots that broke out between Malays and Chinese following a political rally.
In 1969, he joined the National Operation Council, which was set up with emergency powers after the riots of May that year.
The fear of fresh riots, even after decades of relative harmony, continues to shape his political outlook and is often given as the reason why he came down hard on dissent last year.
Abdullah's opponents, though, believe he has merely shed the clothes of a reformer and partly adopted Mahathir's old political formula -- intolerance of public protest, lip-service to anti-corruption, political patronage and, above all, stability.
Abdullah will win the next election, that much seems certain, but whether he can remain long as the leader of his party, and therefore prime minister, could depend on the margin of victory.
Anyone who still thinks that he is 'Mr. Clean' ought to be shot in their heads.
But who knows? MaChAi might still use 'Bao Qing Tien' as the catchphrase this time...