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Just out of power, Mahathir, 94, plans to return to Malaysia


Mahathir Mohamad may be at least temporarily out of power, but the 94-year-old leader does not leave without a fight.

Mahathir’s abrupt resignation last Monday began a week of horse trade that saw his fortune increase and decrease every hour. On Saturday morning, he said he had the numbers to form a government, but in the late afternoon the king appointed Muhyiddin Yassin, until recently Mahathir’s right hand, as prime minister.

Late on Saturday night, Mahathir said he secured the support of 114 lawmakers, enough for a majority in the parliament of 222 members of Malaysia, and reiterated the figure at a press conference on Sunday morning. But some he named denied that they are supporting him.

No matter how things shake, it is a safe bet that Mahathir will not go anywhere. While he ruled Malaysia for almost a quarter of a century for two periods, perhaps he was as politically active when he retired as inside the prime minister’s office, including aid to bring down former Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2018.

He is already planning an urgent session in parliament to show that he has majority support among legislators. At Sunday’s press conference, he repeatedly blamed Muhyiddin for planning and orchestrating the events of last week, and said he felt “betrayed” mainly by him.

“He is not the right prime minister,” Mahathir said of Muhyiddin. “I should have won”.

Muhyiddin has not responded publicly to Mahathir’s comments.

“The game is not over yet,” said James Chin, a Malaysian academic and political analyst who runs the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. “It is too early to dismiss him. Being Mahathir Mahathir, I doubt he will leave Muhyiddin and Najib with the last laugh.

Born in 1925 when the Malay Peninsula was still ruled by Britain, Mahathir studied medicine and became a doctor. He became politically active after Japan occupied what is now Malaysia during World War II, and became prime minister for the first time in 1981 at the age of 56, leading the long-standing government coalition anchored by the United National Organization of Malaysia, or UMNO.

During his first 22 years in office, Mahathir worked hard to put Malaysia on the world map. He had an affinity for ambitious projects such as the tallest office building in the world, one of the largest dams in the world and the largest airport in Southeast Asia.

Mahathir’s approach during the Asian financial crisis was also highlighted. In 1997, the Malaysian ringgit collapsed 35 percent, reserves declined and the stock market collapsed and lost half its value. While other countries like Thailand scrapped a couple of dollars with their currency, Malaysia adopted one in late 1998. Mahathir’s hard approach worked: Malaysia recovered from the crisis to establish itself as a commodity giant.

The episode also marked his disagreement with Anwar Ibrahim, who had been his deputy in the late 1990s during the Asian financial crisis. After Mahathir fired Anwar in 1998, Anwar spent the next six years in prison convicted of abuse of power and sodomy. He became a key example for critics who referred to him as a dictator.

Once he left office in 2003, Mahathir never stopped trying to pull the threads. He organized a campaign to expel his immediate successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and backed Najib. He subsequently became disillusioned with Najib, particularly because of a money laundering scandal involving billions of dollars allegedly diverted from state investment firm 1MDB.

Mahathir left UMNO in 2016, started a new party with Muhyiddin and aligned with Anwar to achieve a surprising electoral victory that overthrew Najib and Barisan Nasional, the coalition he once led that ruled Malaysia since independence. In power for the second time, Mahathir implemented some reforms, including the designation of the country’s first head of justice and the lifting of bans on journalists previously blacklisted.

Still, Mahathir did not want to commit to a timeline to deliver power to Anwar as promised during the election campaign. The persistent delays in establishing an exact date increased tensions that led to the collapse of the coalition last week.

When Mahathir resigned and was appointed interim leader, it initially seemed that he would return with a strengthened hand. But a series of missteps quickly diminished their support. His attempt for a unity government was rejected when he said he would not accept UMNO as a complete block because of some “corrupt” politicians, but that he would receive the support of individual legislators.

His call for legislators to vote on March 2 in favor of a new prime minister was criticized by all parties, who considered him as disrespectful as anticipating a resolution that the monarch was trying to reach. Then he saw his former ruling alliance backing Anwar as prime minister, and his party joined UMNO to back Muhyiddin.

Apparently in the cold, Mahathir was surprised again when he reached an agreement with Anwar’s camp on Saturday morning. He claimed to have the support of a majority in the 222-member parliament, and it seemed that he would return as prime minister. But around 5 p.m. local time, the king said that Muhyiddin really had the support.

Mahathir immediately began calling lawmakers from his coalition to rate the vote and declared that he would write to the king. On Sunday morning, he said the king would not see him, and seemed resigned to the fact that he could not prevent Muhyiddin from becoming prime minister.

“He’s 94 years old, I don’t think he has a long political life ahead of him,” said Johan Saravanamuttu, a Malaysian political scientist and associate member of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “But you never know with Mahathir.”

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