Mahathir strengthens power amid Malaysian political turmoil

Rival political factions competed to win favor with Mahathir Mohamad on Tuesday after he plunged Malaysia into political turmoil by resigning as prime minister, reinforcing the likelihood his shock move will strengthen his power.

Mahathir, who at 94 is the world’s oldest government leader, stepped down on Monday but was immediately named as interim prime minister by Malaysia’s king – a role that carries all the authority of a permanent leader.

The move effectively broke apart an increasingly fragile and unpopular coalition Mahathir had formed with old rival Anwar Ibrahim, 72, to win government on an anti-corruption platform in 2018. It also potentially freed Mahathir from a pre-election promise to hand over the reins to Anwar before his term ends in 2023.

“He has total freedom to decide as he pleases,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of pollster Merdeka.

In one of his first acts as interim leader, Mahathir disbanded his entire cabinet late on Monday, opening up political negotiations to form another government.

An official from Mahathir’s Bersatu party, which is trying to put together one alliance, said a group of senior members met with Mahathir on Tuesday.

The Democratic Action Party (DAP), part of a rival pact, also said it wanted Mahathir to continue in office.

“He is the person most likely to be the next prime minister,” said DAP parliamentarian Ong Kian Ming.

Whatever the outcome of coalition talks, it will mark yet another realignment of politics just two years after Mahathir made a stunning political comeback to topple former leader Najib Razak and bring down the party that had ruled for six decades – and which he had once led.

Mahathir, a former doctor, is credited with transforming Malaysia into an industrial nation from a rural farming backwater when he previously served as prime minister from 1981 to his retirement 2003.

“Just another day in the office,” Mahathir said in a post on his official Twitter account that was accompanied by a series of photos of him reading through paperwork at the prime ministerial desk.