Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said on Wednesday he will step down next March and hand power to his deputy, ending months of uncertainty since disastrous general elections.

Mr Abdullah has been under intense pressure to quit since leading the Barisan Nasional coalition to its worst polls performance in half a century, losing a third of parliamentary seats and five states to the opposition.

The premier said he expected his United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which leads the multi-racial coalition, to hand Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak the top job in a leadership vote next March.

‘I am now announcing I will not seek the presidency of Umno in the upcoming elections. I want a party that is united,’ he told a press conference.

‘I will hand over power to… Najib after he wins the election at the general assembly. I am sure he will win,’ he said. ‘There will be a transition of power after the new president of Umno is decided upon.’

The president of Umno – which has dominated Malaysian politics since independence from Britain in 1957 – by tradition automatically becomes prime minister of the country.

Mr Abdullah originally wanted to hand over to Mr Najib in mid-2010 but was forced to review his departure date as he lost support from the grassroots of Umno, which was shattered by the March election results.

He also faced a campaign by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is seeking to seize power with the help of defecting lawmakers.

Anwar says he has the numbers to form a new administration but is being blocked from triggering a change in government – which would be the first in Malaysia’s history.

Mr Abdullah came to power in 2003 and was initially buoyed by a groundswell of support for his promises of reform after two decades of hardline rule under veteran premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

However, he was quickly seen as weak and ineffective after failing to come to grips with corruption, high crime rates and inefficient bureaucracy which he had vowed to address.

Mr Abdullah insisted on Wednesday that he still intended to fulfil his promises.

‘I intend to carry out several initiatives before I leave office,’ he said, pointing to the anti-corruption programs, reform of the judiciary and poverty alleviation.

The political vacuum since the March elections has paralysed foreign investment and suppressed trade on the stock exchange, in a malaise which is now being worsened by the global economic crisis. — AFP