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Race to form Malaysian gov't heats up, eyes on Mahathir

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — After months of resisting pressure to hand over the premiership to his named successor, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad finally quit this week. But in a confounding twist, the 94-year-old leader emerged stronger than before, while his ruling alliance, which won a historic vote about two years ago, met its Waterloo.

Malaysia’s king accepted Mahathir’s shocking resignation Monday. The move came in tandem with plans by Mahathir’s supporters to team up with opposition parties to form a new government and foil the transition of power to his named successor, Anwar Ibrahim.

But Mahathir’s Bersatu party ditched the alliance, depriving it of its majority rule after 37 lawmakers left and throwing the country into political distress.

With the political situation murky, leaders from both factions raced Tuesday to secure support for a new government.

Leaders of the United Malays National Organization, including disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is on trial for corruption, will reportedly meet the king Tuesday afternoon. Local media reported that speculation was rife that UMNO can form a government in a new coalition with a fundamentalist Islamist party, Bersatu and two other parties on Borneo island.

Members of Bersatu made a beeline to Mahathir’s house Tuesday morning after rejecting his resignation as party chairman. Mahathir has kept mum since the dizzying political debacle began over the weekend. Anwar and other alliance leaders said Monday that Mahathir was not the mastermind behind the conspiracy and that he had quit because he refused to work with UMNO, which he had worked so hard to oust in 2018 polls.

The focus now is on what Mahathir, the world’s oldest leader, will do next. He returned to work in his office Tuesday morning after the king dissolved the Cabinet and appointed him as interim leader until a new government is formed.

Mahathir has kept his cards close to his chest, but what’s clear is that he has the support of all sides, which can pave the way for a comeback — on a clean slate. Both Anwar’s alliance and the defectors trying to grab power support Mahathir as their leader.

“No question he has emerged as more in command than before. Every party has pledged to work with him,” said Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia. “This can be seen as strategy, but it is important not to forget that this whole debacle reflects poorly on him as leader and also does Malaysia no favours. My own view is that this may be a case of a strategy going wrong and hijacked, which he is working to resolve.”

This was Mahathir’s second stint as prime minister. A master politician, he was known for his authoritarian rule during his 22 years in power, which ended in 2003 after a fallout with Anwar, who was his deputy at the time.

Mahathir made a political comeback amid anger over a massive graft scandal involving the 1MDB investment fund that sparked investigations around the globe. Mahathir and Anwar buried their hatchet to form a political pact that ousted Najib’s coalition, which had been in power since independence from Britain in 1957.

Anwar couldn’t participate in the 2018 polls because he was behind bars for a sodomy conviction that he alleged was politically motivated. But he was freed and pardoned by the king after the alliance won power. Mahathir initially said he expected to stay as prime minister for two years to clean up the government, but he has refused consistently to set a firm timeline.

The weekend political drama broke out just after the alliance agreed Friday to give Mahathir the liberty to decide when he would step down.

“It’s a tactical move to allow him maximum flexibility to form a new government,” said James Chin, head of the Asia Institute at Australia’s University of Tasmania. “He had to resign so that the entire government is no more. This allows him to set up a new coalition without any baggage from the old coalition. He will have a free hand to pick and choose.”

Many Malaysians are outraged with Bersatu’s move, calling it a betrayal of the mandate given by voters who wanted a change in 2018. The electoral watchdog group Bersih, which has organized large protests in the past, and other civil society organizations have called for fresh elections. Bersih warned it would call for a major rally if an undemocratic government is formed.

Eileen Ng, The Associated Press

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