KUALA LUMPUR – Mahathir Mohamad said Wednesday that he will form a new nonpartisan government if he is elected to return as Malaysia's prime minister, as the king completed two days of consultations with lawmakers to resolve a political vacuum caused by the abrupt collapse of Mahathir's ruling coalition.
Breaking his silence two days after his shocking resignation, Mahathir confirmed that his Bersatu party ditched the alliance Monday in a bid to form a new government with the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, the party of disgraced ex-leader Najib Razak, who is on trial for corruption, and a fundamentalist Islamic party. The move had thwarted a pre-election agreement by Mahathir to hand over power to his named successor, Anwar Ibrahim.
Mahathir said he had quit to show he wasn't power crazy and because he cannot work with the corrupt-tainted UMNO, which he had ousted in 2018 elections. He made no mention of Anwar in his televised speech, but reiterated that the lower house of Parliament should be the one to pick the prime minister.
“If I really still have support, I will return. If not, I will accept whoever's chosen," said Mahathir, the world's oldest leader at 94.
Anwar's camp, as well as UMNO and the Islamic party, have rejected Mahathir's proposed nonpartisan government.
“I am not aiming to be popular," Mahathir said. “I just want to do what is best for the country. ... I believe, rightly or wrongly, politics and political parties must be set aside for now. If allowed, I will form an administration that does not side with any party. Only national interest will be prioritized.”
The departure of 37 lawmakers, including 11 from Anwar's party, deprives the governing Alliance of Hope of majority rule and sparked a crisis less than two years after its election victory ousted a corrupt-tainted coalition that had ruled for 61 years. The king dissolved the Cabinet but reappointed Mahathir as interim leader.
Mahathir spoke as the king finished consulting all 222 lawmakers to determine who they support as prime minister or if they want fresh elections. The king's role is largely ceremonial in Malaysia, but he appoints the person with majority support in Parliament as prime minister.
Shortly after Mahathir's speech, Anwar said lawmakers from the three remaining parties in his alliance had nominated him as prime minister during their meeting with the king — marking a U-turn from an earlier stand to support Mahathir as their leader.
Anwar said the change was due to Mahathir rejecting their offer to restore their former government. The alliance also said the new plan would only create a “Mahathir government" that goes against voters' mandate.
Anwar said they will leave it to the king to decide and will accept the outcome. The palace didn't say when the king will reveal his findings.
The alliance's move could potentially cause a new deadlock if no one gets majority support. Anwar's alliance controls 41% of parliamentary seats, short of 20 seats for a simple majority. UMNO and the Islamic party, which jointly controls a quarter of parliamentary seats, have also withdrawn their support for Mahathir and called for fresh elections.
“At the end of the day, the real fight is still between Mahathir and Anwar," said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
The premiership eluded Anwar two decades ago. Once a high-flying member of the former ruling coalition, he was convicted of homosexual sodomy and corruption after a power struggle with Mahathir, who was prime minister for 22 years until 2003. Anwar was freed from prison in 2004 but was once again convicted for sodomy in 2015, charges that he said were concocted to destroy his political career.
Angered by a massive corruption scandal at a state investment fund, Mahathir made a political comeback, and he and Mahathir forged an alliance that that ousted Prime Minister Najib's coalition, which had been in power since independence from Britain in 1957.
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 refused to set a firm timeline for passing the baton to Anwar.
Mahathir has been meeting with various political leaders. He met with finance ministry officials Wednesday and his office said he will announce a stimulus plan Thursday to bolster an economy that has been hurt by the new virus running through Asia and much of the world.