KUALA LUMPUR – Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Friday accused the U.S. of trying to provoke a war in Taiwan, and in a wide-ranging interview also said he expects Malaysia’s graft-tainted ruling party to hold general elections in the coming months.
Mahathir, a two-time prime minister long known as a critic of the West and its geopolitics, warned that the U.S. was antagonizing China through recent visits to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others. China considers the self-ruled island democracy part of its territory and regards such visits as meddling in its affairs.
“China has allowed Taiwan to remain by itself. No problem. They didn't invade. If they wanted to invade, they could have invaded. They didn’t. But America is provoking (them) so that there can be a war, so that the Chinese will make the mistake of trying to occupy Taiwan," the 97-year-old Mahathir said.
“Then there is an excuse ... for the U.S. to help Taiwan, even fight against China and sell a lot of arms to Taiwan," he added.
Following Pelosi's visit, China launched large-scale military drills surrounding the island and fired ballistic missiles into the sea. Beijing also warned Washington not to encourage Taiwan to try to make its de facto independence permanent, a step China says would lead to war.
There was no immediate U.S. response to Mahathir's comments.
In Malaysia, Mahathir said the ruling United Malays National Organization is likely preparing for snap polls that it will most likely “win big.” He believes that a number of Malay voters have returned to UMNO because they were offered money and other incentives.
“I think they will want to have the general elections this year. If possible, maybe as soon as two or three months from now, because they feel that at this moment the public still looks up at them, and the opposition is broken up, disorganized," he told the AP.
Elections are not due until September 2023, but some UMNO members, including ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak and party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who are both fighting graft charges, have been rallying for an earlier vote.
Mahathir was an UMNO prime minister for 22 years until his retirement in 2003. He was inspired to return to politics by the massive looting of the 1MDB state fund during Najib's term in office, and rode a wave of public anger to lead the opposition to a historic victory in 2018 polls that ousted Najib's government.
Mahathir became the world's oldest head of government at 93, but his reformist alliance collapsed in less than two years due to defections. UMNO returned to power and now leads a new coalition government.
Mahathir has formed a new party, Pejuang, and a Malay alliance to contest 120 Malay-dominated parliamentary seats. He said his mission remained the same: to “clean-up" the country and form a graft-free government.
“I don't know about being prime minister candidate, but if I am strong enough, if I am healthy enough, if they want me to contest, I will contest," Mahathir said.
“I will fight, even if it is a losing battle," he said. “I will fight because I believe in principle. It’s not what happens to me. I believe in principle. I believe that this is a great country which can become a developed country, but under the crooks you will never become."
Najib has maintained his innocence. With his final appeal against a 12-year prison sentence in the first of several trials ongoing in the country’s top court, he would not be allowed to run in the event of an early election.
Mahathir said he believes Najib hopes to make a political comeback with an UMNO win.
“In the elections, if UMNO wins, he expects an UMNO government to ask for a pardon for him — and when he gets a pardon, (and is) cleared completely, he can then become prime minister," Mahathir said. “He will do it. Believe me, he will do it."
On the international front, Mahathir described President Joe Biden as an “ineffective” leader.
“In a way, he’s very anti-Islam, he’s not being fair. He allows Israel to commit all kinds of crime, genocide, and he does nothing. He supports them," said Mahathir, who has been accused of anti-Semitism for attacking Jews, whom he blames for a humanitarian crisis in Palestinian territories.
He also railed against the European Union over the Russian war on Ukraine.
“What NATO is doing, the EU is doing is to provoke some more and asking the Ukrainians to fight," Mahathir said. “They promised to accept Ukraine (into NATO) but they didn't."