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

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — After resisting pressure for months to hand over Malaysia's leadership to his designated successor, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad finally quit this week.
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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — After resisting pressure for months to hand over Malaysia's leadership to his designated successor, 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 nearly two years ago, met its Waterloo.

Malaysia's king accepted Mahathir's shocking resignation Monday and dissolved the Cabinet, but reappointed him as interim leader until a new government is formed. Mahathir also quit as chairman of his Bersatu party after it ditched the alliance in a bid to form a new government with opposition parties and foil the transition of power to his named successor, Anwar Ibrahim.

A total of 37 lawmakers left, depriving the alliance of its majority in Parliament and throwing the country into political distress. Anwar and his allies said Mahathir wasn't party to the conspiracy and had relinquished all posts to avoid working with the previous corrupt regime.

With the political situation murky, King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah began an unprecedented process Tuesday to interview all lawmakers to establish who they support as the next prime minister or if they want new elections. The king holds a largely ceremonial role but appoints the person with majority support as the prime minister.

“Just be patient ... I hope we will find the best solution for the country," the king said in a surprising appearance to hand out food parcels to the horde of media camped outside the palace.

The focus now is on what Mahathir, the world's oldest leader, will do next. He clocked in for work as usual Tuesday. “Just another day in the office," he tweeted, along with photos of him at his desk studying documents. What's clear is that he has the support of nearly 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,” 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."

His office said Mahathir met with leaders of various parties as he weighs his next move. Mahathir has kept his cards close to his chest but opposition leaders who met him Tuesday said he had proposed a unity government that would include rival parties and a Cabinet that isn't split based on party strength.

In a new twist, leaders from two opposition Malay parties — which control a quarter of the parliamentary seats — said they do not support Mahathir's plan and now prefer new elections. The two parties are the United Malays National Organization, the party of disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak who is on trial on corruption charges, and a fundamentalist Islamic party with strong rural support.

“The mandate should be returned to the people and we request that Parliament be dissolved. Let the people decide,” UMNO Secretary-General Annuar Musa said. The two parties are touted to be in Bersatu's camp and their stand indicates that they do not have enough support to form the new government.

This was Mahathir's second stint as prime minister. A master politician, he was credited with modernizing Malaysia but also was known for his heavy-handed rule during 22 years in power until he stepped down in 2003. Anwar was his deputy but was sacked in 1998 after the two had a falling out, and was jailed on charges of sodomy and abuse of power. Anwar said the charges were trumped up.

Mahathir made a return as a political saviour after he buried the hatchet with Anwar to form a political pact that ousted Najib's UMNO-led coalition, which had been in power since independence from Britain in 1957. His return was spurred by anger over a massive corruption scandal involving the 1MDB investment fund that sparked investigations around the globe. Najib faces multiple corruption charges over the 1MDB saga and is on trial now.

Anwar couldn't participate in the 2018 elections because he was behind bars for a second sodomy conviction. 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 to set a firm timeline for passing the baton to Anwar under their pre-election agreement.

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. Dozens of civil society groups have called for new elections, with electoral watchdog group Bersih warning of a major protest rally if an undemocratic government is formed.

Eileen Ng, The Associated Press

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