World

Malaysia's Mahathir sworn in as PM after unlikely comeback win

Mahathir Mohamad has been sworn in as Malaysia's seventh prime minister in a ceremony before the Southeast Asian country's king after leading opposition parties to a historic election victory.

Mahathir Mohamad, 92, known as an autocrat in former terms, is back in power after upset win

Mahathir Mohamad, speaking during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, said one of his first priorities as Malaysia's prime minister would be to cancel an unpopular goods and services tax. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

Mahathir Mohamad has been sworn in as Malaysia's seventh prime minister in a ceremony before the Southeast Asian country's king after leading opposition parties to a historic election victory.

The ceremony at the official state palace in Kuala Lumpur ended a day of uncertainty during which rumours swirled that the National Front, Malaysia's ruling party for 60 years, would try to stay in power.

People outside the palace cheered and waved opposition flags.

Mahathir, 92, was Malaysia's prime minister for 22 years until 2003. He returned to politics to deny his former protege Najib Razak a third term as prime minister, who was tarnished by allegations of massive theft from a state investment fund.

Opposition parties won more than 135 seats in the 222-seat parliament despite attempts by the ruling party in recent years to gerrymander ridings in order to favour the sparsely populated rural areas that have tended to favour Najib's National Front. In the 2013 election, the National Front won a majority despite losing the popular vote.

Mahathir is now the world's oldest elected leader and, analysts say, seems intent on using what may be the final chapter of his life to clean up Malaysia — he called it a "mess" — and fashion a more positive legacy.

"I was very sleepy this morning," he joked at a lively post-election news conference Thursday. "I got up late and lots of people got up late. The moment I got up, as I was having breakfast, I called all the officers concerned and told them all things we have to do."

Mahathir was a maverick Malay nationalist in the early days of his political career. He survived expulsion from the dominant United Malays National Organization party, and became the first commoner prime minister of Malaysia. Though credited with transforming the Southeast Asian backwater into a modern economy, his dominance was stifling.

Promises to pardon jailed former rival

Under his 22-year rule, the judiciary was a tool of the government, the media were muzzled and a system of economic privileges for the Malay majority and second-class status for Chinese and Indian minorities remained entrenched.

Among the stains of his years in power was the sacking of his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, following a power struggle. Anwar led street protests against Mahathir but was imprisoned on charges of sodomy and corruption and appeared in court with a black eye from a police beating.

Mohamad supporters are seen outside of the National Palace on Thursday. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

Mahathir had extravagant ambitions for Malaysia's economy, backing the construction of the famous twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur that were once the world's tallest buildings and creating state-owned carmaker Proton, which never really prospered despite being sheltered from competition.

Not long before his retirement in 2003, Mahathir caused global outrage with an anti-Semitic speech to leaders of Islamic nations that portrayed Jews as leading a global conspiracy to oppress Muslims.

Even after stepping down, he remained influential, smoothing Najib's ascent to the top in 2009 after criticizing his first successor, Abdullah Ahamad Badawi, for poor economic management. He also supported Najib in 2013 elections.

Then he became Najib's most ferocious critic as the prime minister, initially regarded as a cautious reformer, turned to Mahathir's authoritarian playbook to survive a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal at the 1MDB state fund that damaged the country's reputation.

The United States and several other countries are investigating allegations of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering at 1MDB, which was set up and previously led by Najib to promote economic development. The U.S. Justice Department says at least $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB by associates of Najib, who denies any wrongdoing.

Najib said the $681 million he was found to be in receipt of was a gift from Saudi Arabia.

Mahathir publicly reconciled with Anwar, again in prison on another sodomy charge he said was fabricated by the National Front, and joined the multi-ethnic opposition to "save Malaysia" from a corrupt elite.

Despite two coronary bypass surgeries, Mahathir kept up a hectic campaign schedule. He sometimes spoke several times a day at rallies and also updated his tactics for the social media age.

"As far as health is concerned, I am not senile yet," he said at one point during the campaign.

Ahead of being sworn in as prime minister again, he promised to seek a full royal pardon for Anwar, criticized a represssive "fake news" law introduced under Najib but didn't say it would be repealed, and vowed to cancel an unpopular goods and service tax.

He promised to review foreign investments, which include major infrastructure projects that are part of China's
Belt and Road initiative.

With files from CBC News and Reuters

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