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Malaysia in transition

Mahathir moves with practiced skill to assert control

New prime minister keeps Najib in country and prepares Anwar's release

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad brushed off an attempt by predecessor Najib Razak to sow doubt over whether the king would appoint him as Malaysia's new leader. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

KUALA LUMPUR -- Mahathir Mohamad remains a formidable political operator in his second stint as Malaysia's prime minister, moving swiftly to take command after sweeping his onetime protege's long-ruling party out of power last week.

Mahathir barred predecessor Najib Razak from leaving the country and signaled a readiness to investigate allegations that the former prime minister misappropriated vast amounts of money from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad sovereign wealth fund. The move came Saturday amid reports that Najib and his wife were preparing to go abroad.

"We had to act quickly because we don't want to be saddled with the problem of extradition from another country," Mahathir told reporters that day.

Also on Saturday, Najib said he had resigned as head of the Barisan Nasional coalition and its largest party, the United Malays National Organization.

The country's king, Sultan Muhammad V, gave his consent to pardon jailed politician Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir said Friday. During the election campaign, Mahathir pledged to seek Anwar's freedom and hand over power to him eventually.

Anwar, a Mahathir protege like Najib, had served as the deputy in Mahathir's first government before being dismissed by his leader in 1998 and jailed under what were seen as politically motivated charges.

Fast, decisive action with little concern for accusations of heavy-handedness is the essence of the 92-year-old Mahathir's brand of leadership, honed during 22 years of rule that began in 1981 when he led the UMNO. This experience wielding power was overlaid with lessons learned as a new member of Malaysia's long-suffering opposition, which he joined after turning into a vocal critic of Najib and leaving the UMNO in 2016.

This time, Mahathir led the four-party Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, to a stunning victory in Wednesday's lower house election. Sworn in on Thursday, he is expected to need two to three weeks to form a cabinet. But Mahathir already has shown characteristic speed in fending off threats after Najib made a final attempt to thwart his comeback.

Najib had told reporters Thursday that no party won a majority in the 222-seat lower house and that the king would determine the next prime minister. Though Pakatan Harapan did eke out a slim majority as a bloc, none of its four parties won more seats than UMNO.

Mahathir wasted no time in firing back. Calling a news conference, he said that Malaysia's constitution makes no stipulation about how many seats a party holds as long as a prime minister is elected by a majority of members in parliament. "The king is required to sign," he said.

Mahathir's hodgepodge coalition lacks experience running a government, leaving it no choice but to rely on its elderly but seasoned leader's forcefulness for now. But translating the alliance's manifesto into action -- including sweeping political reforms meant to repair checks and balances eroded under Najib -- will require teamwork between a capable cabinet and the bureaucracy.

"Enormous challenges lie ahead," said Lee Hwok Aun, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "The reforms Pakatan Harapan has promised are immense, both in terms of the scale of change and the need to restrain action while institutionalizing the change."

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