BANGKOK — Two days after his shock resignation, Mahathir Mohamad broke his silence on Wednesday to state that he was open to returning as Malaysia’s prime minister atop a unity government.
After days of intrigue, with parties holding multiple meetings amid speculation about shifting alliances, Mahathir, who is interim prime minister, suggested in a televised speech that “party politics” be “put aside for the time being” and a national unity government be formed.
However Mahathir, 94, is being challenged by Anwar Ibrahim, an ally-turned-foe, whose supporters contend that the unity government proposals would give Mahathir free rein.
“Effectively, it is a Tun [an honorific referring to Mahathir] government and not a PH [Pakatan Harapan, the four party alliance that made up the previous administration] government,” stated the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which held several ministries under Mahathir.
The DAP is now supporting Anwar’s bid for the top job after saying on Monday that it backed Mahathir.
In a press conference shortly after Mahathir’s speech, 72-year-old Anwar said Mahathir was invited to a meeting of the frayed alliance on Tuesday to discuss restoring the government that fell the previous day.
Neither Mahathir nor his Bersatu party, which quit the alliance on Monday, showed up. In response, the remnant parties of the alliance stated on Wednesday that their candidate for prime minister is Anwar.
Mahathir had earlier promised Anwar – whom he had jailed after a late-1990s falling-out – that he could take over as prime minister in May 2020.
The two men reconciled to lead the opposition alliance to a shock election win in 2018, the first change of government in Malaysian history.
But Mahathir later said he wanted to stay on until at least November 2020, leading Anwar to suspect a plot to prevent his succession.
Anwar declined to say on Wednesday if he has enough support among parliamentarians to become prime minister: “We have left that to the discretion of the agong (Malaysia’s king),” he said.
In an unprecedented move, King Abdullah has been meeting all 222 lawmakers to assess if any faction has the numbers to form a government.
Malaysia’s constitution stipulates that the king, whose role is mostly ceremonial, may nominate a prime minister if he deems any candidate “likely to command the confidence of the majority of the MPs,” which in practice usually means the winning side in parliamentary elections.
Mahathir said in his speech that parliament, where 112 seats out 222 are needed for a majority, could be the venue to decide the make-up of the next government.
“If it’s true that I’m still supported, I’ll be back. Otherwise I will accept whoever is selected,” Mahathir, 94, said.
Anwar was not mentioned in Mahathir’s speech, in which he said he would not include the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), his former party that he helped remove from power in 2018 elections, in government
Mahathir did not say why he resigned but claimed that party colleagues were trying to bring the UMNO into the previous government against his wishes.
However parties backing Anwar said on Wednesday that Mahathir “will likely” include the UMNO in any unity government.
On Tuesday, after saying they would not take part in any unity government that involved the DAP, the UMNO and other opposition parties called for snap parliamentary elections to resolve the impasse, a recommendation the king can also make.Show