Dr Mahathir Mohamad

KUALA LUMPUR: Interim Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammed is trying to form a national unity government under his personal authority, drawing together rival parties, political sources said yesterday, following his shock resignation as prime minister.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad

The world’s oldest government leader at 94, Dr Mahathir stepped down on Monday, but Malaysia’s king immediately named him interim prime minister, which lets him retain authority.

The move effectively shattered a fragile coalition Dr Mahathir had formed with old rival Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, 72, to win a 2018 election on an anti-graft platform. 

Dr Mahathir proposed the idea of a grand coalition at meetings yesterday with leaders of major political parties, including Anwar and those he defeated in the election, four political sources with knowledge of the matter said.

“It appears that Dr Mahathir is poised to form the government,” one source said. “There won’t be any political entity. We might be a government of no parties.”

The sources declined to be identified because they were not authorised to speak to media.

Dr Mahathir’s office made no immediate comment on the plan.

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

Parties across the board rallied to say they would support Dr Mahathir’s return as full-time prime minister, with Anwar’s the only major party not to offer a public endorsement.

No one has publicly staked a claim to be prime minister.

The realignment could give Dr Mahathir greater authority than even during a previous spell as prime minister from 1981 until his retirement in 2003, during which he is credited with turning a farming backwater into an industrial nation.

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

Two of the sources said Dr Mahathir’s resignation meant a pre-election promise to hand power to Anwar was no longer valid.

The former medical doctor returned as prime minister after the 2018 election defeat of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, ringing down the curtain on more than six decades of rule by the party he had once led.

“Just another day in the office,” Dr Mahathir said on his official Twitter account, accompanied by photographs of him reading papers at the prime ministerial desk.

Malaysia’s constitution provides that any lawmaker who can command a majority in parliament can stake a claim to form a government, which must then be approved by the King.

The palace said the King would hold individual interviews with all 222 elected members of parliament’s lower house yesterday and today, to assess who was likely to succeed.

Lawmakers leaving the palace said they have been given a form on which to indicate their choice of prime minister, or whether they would prefer parliament to be dissolved.

The political crisis comes at a particularly bad time for the Malaysian economy, after growth fell to a decade low in last year’s final quarter.

The stock market recovered slightly yesterday from an eight-year low hit the previous day, while the currency also rose after having hit its lowest in nearly six months.

Dr Mahathir had been due to unveil tomorrow a stimulus package to soften the economic fallout from a coronavirus outbreak.

Dr Mahathir and Anwar formed the Pakatan Harapan coalition to Umno and its Barisan Nasional alliance in 2018.

Anwar had been Dr Mahathir’s deputy before the latter arrested and jailed him in the late 1990s for sodomy and corruption, charges that Anwar and his supporters maintain were aimed at ending his political career. – Reuters