By VIJAY JOSHI, Associated Press Writer AP
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Malaysia's prime minister announced Wednesday he will step down in March and hand over power to his deputy, averting an open rebellion from party members that could have led to a humiliating ouster.
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose term expires in 2013, told reporters that he was stepping down early to prevent a split in his United Malays National Organization party, which forms the core of the ruling National Front coalition.
"In all my years of service, I have always been guided by my conscience ... and I do not want a divided party and governing coalition, but one that is united and harmonious," he said, flanked by his successor, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Abdullah had very little choice. His own party members has been clamoring for a new leadership after he led the National Front _ in power since independence in 1957 _ to its worst performance in a general election last March.
Initially, Abdullah refused to resign. Later, he said he would leave in June 2010, but when that failed to placate dissidents he agreed to quit in March 2009 after the party holds elections for its office bearers.
Abdullah said he will not defend his position as UMNO president in the elections. Instead, the post will be contested by Najib, who is expected to win unopposed. The party's president automatically becomes the prime minister.
Abdullah said he will hand over the premiership after Najib formally wins.
Until then, he said, he will pursue reforms in the judiciary, economy and administration. Abdullah is unlikely to achieve much given that his reform program has made little headway during his four years in office.
The global financial crisis and economic slowdown is expected to hit Malaysia's export-driven economy hard, with analysts predicting 3 percent economic growth in 2009 _ even as inflation reached a 27-year high this month.
Racial tensions are also running high between the majority Malays and the minority ethnic Chinese and Indians, who blame the government's pro-Malay policies for causing social fissures.
Anger against the government exploded in the general elections when opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's multiracial coalition, the People's Alliance, won an unprecedented 82 seats in the 222-member Parliament.
The March 8 election results triggered months of turmoil in the United Malays National Organization and have threatened its position as the country's dominant political force.
Associated Press writers Sean Yoong and Julia Zappei contributed to this article.