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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia's next leader: More Mahathir?

With politics in disarray, 94-year-old enhances power as kingmaker

Mahathir Mohamad remains interim prime minister until a new cabinet is formed.    © AP

KUALA LUMPUR -- As Malaysia's political parties jockey for power after Mahathir Mohamad's resignation as prime minister Monday, a handful of figures -- previously designated successor Anwar Ibrahim, Anwar's wife, or even Mahathir himself --  are now seen as the most likely candidates to take the reins.

But with none having yet gained the necessary majority support in the lower house of parliament, a word from Mahathir about the next prime minister, or even the withdrawal of his resignation, could prove decisive.

The 94-year-old Mahathir remains interim prime minister until a new cabinet is formed, and he still holds considerable sway over both ruling and opposition parties.

A leading candidate to replace him is Anwar, to whom Mahathir had promised to cede his position at some point after chairing this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November. Conflict over this arrangement sparked the political turmoil amid which the prime minister resigned, as a majority of lower house members reportedly supported Mahathir serving out his five-year term.

Anwar, a former deputy prime minister and on-again, off-again friend and foe of Mahathir, is a reformer popular at home and abroad. He leads the People's Justice Party, which holds 39 of the 222 seats in the lower house even after several members were removed or quit following their declaration of support for Mahathir.

Anwar has had a difficult relationship with Mahathir of late over the timing of the latter's resignation. But shortly before the prime minister announced his resignation, Anwar told reporters that he had met with Mahathir, looking to emphasize their good relationship and put more weight behind his succession claim.

Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar's wife and the country's second-ranked official, is another major candidate. She would be Malaysia's first female prime minister.

In addition to having Mahathir's trust, Wan Azizah has a warm personality and few political enemies, which would make her a good choice for building a new ruling coalition should it become necessary.

Meanwhile, players formerly aligned with the ruling Alliance of Hope coalition look to build a new majority with opposition parties.

Among the defectors are 11 lawmakers who left Anwar's People's Justice Party on Monday, including Azmin Ali, who had been economic affairs minister and was ousted as deputy president of the party. Mahathir's Malaysian United Indigenous Party, or Bersatu, which also left the alliance that day is also working on a new coalition.

Because Mahathir resigned as chairman of Bersatu, the current party leader Muhyiddin Yassin could become the next prime minister if it is successful in forming a new coalition.

None of these potential candidates has attracted the broad base of support needed. By stepping down without designating a successor, Mahathir has only strengthened his hold over Malaysian politics.

The Sabah Heritage Party, based in the state of Sabah on Borneo, said Monday that it supports officially returning Mahathir to the prime minister post, after reports as recently as Sunday that it would join a coalition with Bersatu.

With no side holding a majority in the lower house, regional parties such as Sabah Heritage and the Gabungan Parti Sarawak alliance, which hold nine and 18 seats, respectively, have become potential kingmakers.

Leaders of the Alliance of Hope member parties will meet Tuesday. Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, secretary general of the Democratic Action Party, will propose that Mahathir continue to serve as prime minister.

The coalition had confirmed on Friday that Mahathir would stay on at least until after the November APEC summit. Some fear that the alliance could fall apart without a similarly strong central figure to rally around.

Mahathir held no news conference after his resignation, nor did he offer a reason for the decision or any recommendations as to a successor. He is widely expected to wait to play his next card until after the dust settles.

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