Race to form Malaysia government heats up, with eyes on Mahathir

KUALA LUMPUR (AP) — 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 more powerful 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 on 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.

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 yesterday to secure support for a new government.

In an unprecedented move, palace officials said King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has decided to interview all lawmakers to establish who they support as the next prime minister. The two-day process started yesterday with 90 lawmakers, each given a few minutes to voice their stand.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad works at his office in Putrajaya. PHOTO: AP

Disgraced ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is on trial for corruption, and leaders from his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) were among those at the palace yesterday.

Local media reported that speculation is rife that UMNO can form a government in a new coalition with a fundamentalist party, Bersatu and two other parties on Borneo island.

In a surprising appearance at the palace gate, Sultan Abdullah said he was concerned with the crisis and urged people to be patient.

“Let me do my duties. I hope we will find the best solution for the country,” the king said as he handed out food parcels to the horde of media camped outside the palace.

Mahathir, who also resigned as Bersatu chairman, has kept mum since the dizzying political events began over the weekend.

Anwar and other alliance leaders said on 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. “Just another day in the office,” he tweeted yesterday, along with photos of him at his desk studying documents, after the king dissolved the Cabinet and appointed him as interim leader until a new government is formed.

His office said Mahathir met with political leaders from various parties, as he weighs his next move. 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 — with 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 honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia Bridget Welsh. “This can be seen as strategy, but it is

important not to forget that this whole debacle reflects poorly on him as a 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.”