Mahathir Mohamad (92) sworn in as Malaysia PM after huge upset

Mahathir, the oldest elected leader in world, ends ruling coalition’s six-decade reign

Opposition coalition leader Mahathir Mohamad said there's an urgency to form a new government after his alliance secured victory in a general election. Mahathir also promised to give a full pardon to former rival and jailed politician Anwar Ibrahim.

 

Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as Malaysia’s seventh prime minister on Thursday following his stunning election victory over the coalition that has ruled the southeast Asian nation for six decades since independence from Britain.

Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, Sultan Muhammad V, administered the oath of office just before 10pm (3pm Irish time), in a ceremony carried live on state television from the palace. Mr Mahathir (92) was dressed in a traditional black “baju melayu” tunic and sarong, with an Islamic cap on his head. He is the oldest elected leader in the world.

Hundreds of Malaysians were lined up on the road leading to the palace, waving party flags and cheering. The election commission announced the result long before dawn and there was some consternation in the capital over the time taken to swear in the new prime minister.

“There is an urgency here, we need to form the government now, today,” Mr Mahathir told a news conference earlier in the day, where he insisted that he would be sworn in on Thursday.

A palace statement earlier dismissed suggestions that the appointment was delayed. “His Majesty strongly supports and respects the democratic process and the wishes of his subjects,” it said.

Iron fist

Mr Mahathir ruled Malaysia with an iron fist from 1981 to 2003. He came out of retirement to take on his former protege, Najib Razak, who was prime minister for nearly a decade. Mr Mahathir’s alliance of four parties trounced Mr Najib’s Barisan Nasional (BN), the first time it had ever lost an election.

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Najib appeared to raise doubts that Mr Mahathir would immediately take office because no single party had won a simple majority of seats in the 222-member parliament, and it would be up to the monarch to decide.

Official results showed that Mr Mahathir’s coalition won 121 seats, comfortably more than the 112 required to rule. But it has not been formally registered as an alliance.

Supporters of Mahathir Mohamad outside the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur. Photograph: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
Supporters of Mahathir Mohamad outside the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur. Photograph: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

In jubilant mood and cracking jokes, Mr Mahathir dismissed any doubts he would be prime minister. “I got up late, lots of people got up late,” he replied when asked why there was a delay in swearing him in, noting that the election result was only officially announced at about 5am.

He said he had been assured of support from a raft of parties that would give his government 135 members of parliament.

Malaysian markets were closed and will reopen only on Monday, but overseas investors were nervous about the Mr Najib’s loss and the ringgit lost four per cent in offshore trading.

“This upset ranks up there with Brexit and the Trump election,” said Aninda Mitra, a senior sovereign analyst at BNY Mellon Investment Management. “I believe the ringgit will come under pressure as policy continuity will come under a cloud.”

Economic prospects

Mr Mahathir repeated a promise to repeal a goods and services tax (GST) introduced by Mr Najib and review foreign investments, including major infrastructure projects that are part of China’s Belt and Road initiative. Some economists raised concerns his populist promises could undermine economic prospects at an increasingly challenging time for emerging markets, despite hopes elsewhere he may revive his bold approach to economic management.

Mr Najib’s BN coalition won 79 seats, a collapse from the 133 it won in the 2013 election, which was itself the coalition’s worst poll performance ever at the time.

Few had expected Mr Mahathir to prevail against a coalition that has long relied on the support of the country’s ethnic-Malay majority. However, he joined hands with jailed political leader Anwar Ibrahim, his one-time deputy he famously fell out with in 1998, and together their alliance exploited public disenchantment over the cost of living and a multi-billion-dollar scandal that has dogged Mr Najib since 2015.

Royal pardon

Mr Mahathir said that one of his first actions would be to seek a royal pardon for Mr Anwar. Before the poll he had promised to step aside once Mr Anwar was free and let him become prime minister. His wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, was sitting next to Mr Mahathir at his news conference. Under an agreement with Mr Mahathir, she is to be deputy prime minister.

Mr Anwar was imprisoned, first by Mr Mahathir, on charges of corruption and sodomy. He was released in 2004 but jailed again by Mr Najib in 2015.

Mr Mahathir and Mr Najib were once allies but they clashed over a scandal around 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund from which billions of dollars were allegedly siphoned off. The 1MDB affair is being investigated by at least six countries, although Mr Najib has denied any wrongdoing and has been cleared by Malaysia’s attorney-general.

Mr Mahathir had vowed to investigate the scandal if elected and bring missing funds back to Malaysia. On Thursday, he said that if Mr Najib had done anything wrong he would “face the consequences”.

Mr Najib conceded the election in a news conference on Thursday but has not been seen in public since. He did not attend the swearing in ceremony at the palace. – Reuters