KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s former authoritarian ruler Mahathir Mohamad, who in an unlikely political comeback led opposition parties to an unprecedented election victory, said Thursday they have a clear mandate to form a government and insisted he should be immediately confirmed as prime minister.
In a lively news conference peppered with cussing and trademark wisecracks, 92-year-old Mahathir flagged significant changes for Malaysia which he described as being left in a “mess” by defeated Prime Minister Najib Razak and the National Front coalition.
Najib, whose reputation was battered by an epic corruption scandal and an unpopular goods and sales tax, conceded defeat, ending 60 years of unbroken rule by the Malay-dominated National Front.
The U.S. Justice Department says $4.5 billion was looted from state investment fund 1MBD by associates of Najib between 2009 and 2014, including $700 million that landed in Najib’s bank account. He has denied wrongdoing.
Mahathir disputed Najib’s assertion that Malaysia’s king must appoint the new prime minister because no single party has a parliamentary majority, calling it “confusion.” The constitution, he said, only specifies that the prime minister must represent those with a majority in the legislature.
“We need to have this government today without delay,” Mahathir said. “There is a lot of work to be done. You know the mess the country is in and we need to attend to this mess as soon as possible,” he said.
Mahathir, leader for 22 years until stepping down in 2003, said the new government would seek the release and full pardon of Anwar Ibrahim, an opposition icon imprisoned on sodomy charges that Anwar and his supporters said were fabricated by the National Front to crush the opposition. Anwar, whose sentence ends on June 8, should be free to participate in politics, he said.
On the economic front, Mahathir vowed to cancel a goods and service tax imposed since 2015 and said the government could also renegotiate the terms of Chinese loans for infrastructure projects.
He also criticized a “fake news” law pushed through parliament by the National Front during the lead-up to the election. Mahathir is being investigated under that law for claiming his plane had been sabotaged during the campaign.
Supporters of the incoming government took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to celebrate their unexpected victory.
People stood on roadsides waving the white, blue and red flag of the opposition alliance that triumphed in Wednesday’s election. Cars honked their horns as they sped past.
“I’m so happy,” said Zarini Najibuddin while waving the opposition flag. “I hope we’ll have a better Malaysia now. Malaysia reborn!”
Mahathir was credited with modernizing Malaysia during his rule but was also known as a heavy-handed leader who imprisoned opponents and subjugated the courts.
Angered by the graft scandal at 1MDB, Mahathir emerged from political retirement and joined the opposition in an attempt to oust Najib, his former protege. He said the new government will not conduct a witch hunt, but Najib will have to face the consequences if he has broken the law.
In his concession speech, Najib said he accepted the “verdict of the people.”
The National Front “will honor the principle of democracy in the parliament,” he said.