Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi (File/Azani Manaf)

The Malaysian prime minister today said he could relinquish power earlier than planned amid defections from his ruling coalition and opposition attempts to topple him.

In a fresh setback for Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, another party announced it was leaving the coalition because of dissatisfaction with his leadership.

The departure of the Sabah Progressive party, a small member of the 14-party National Front, reduced Badawi’s majority to 56 seats.

Officials said the party would remain independent for the time being but did not rule out joining the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, in his People’s Alliance and said Abdullah’s coalition had “lost its moral authority to rule”.

“I will not be staying [longer] than 2010 … if I should want to go earlier, that is possible,” Abdullah told a news conference. “That is a flexibility that we have arranged.”

The prime minister – who had previously said he would resign in mid-2010 – confirmed he still intended to defend his post as the ruling party’s leader in a December ballot.

In an effort to ease some of the tensions over his leadership, he handed control of the finance ministry to his deputy, Najib Razak.

Opponents have been demanding Abdullah’s early resignation since he led the National Front to its worst election results in 51 years.

It has been in power since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957, but lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority in March and conceded control of five of the country’s 13 states to the People’s Alliance.

Anwar claimed to be on the verge of toppling the government, saying he had pledges of support from more than 31 National Front MPs ready to defect to the People’s Alliance.

Abdullah rejected the claim as a “mirage”, accusing Anwar of causing public alarm and calling him “a threat not only to our economy but possibly also … security”. — Guardian