Updated at 1:37 p.m. ET on 2016-03-07
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Friday announced a new coalition encompassing many of his erstwhile enemies that is calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak over corruption allegations.
Mahathir and 57 other leading figures from across Malaysia’s political and social spectrum issued a 37-point “Citizens’ Declaration” calling for the removal of Razak from office.
"The movement will witness the dawn of a new comprehensive reform effort in a paralyzed state system under the leadership of Najib," Malek Maszlee, a political science professor at the International Islamic University - Malaysia, told BenarNews.
But for the new movement to succeed, the group led by Mahathir will need to gather momentum behind its cause, he cautioned.
“People also want a guarantee” that, should Najib be removed as PM non-violently, he won’t be replaced by a leader “who will make more trouble after that,” Malek said.
Ahmad Atory Hussain, a political scientist and former professor at the University of Science, Malaysia, described the new movement as unprecedented.
"I salute Mahathir because all the opposition leaders who had previously been hostile to him now follow behind him. This is something that never happened before,” Ahmad told BenarNews.
Yet he expressed skepticism that the movement could go far in bringing about political change.
In his view, Najib remains entrenched and it will be difficult to replace him because he has the backing of 3.3. million members of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party that has headed Malaysia’s ruling coalition for nearly 60 years – and which Mahathir just quit in protest over corruption scandals under Najib’s leadership.
"I'm sure he is able to control this problem. For me, he will handle this issue,” Ahmad said.
On Friday, Mahathir and an assortment of politicians with whom he battled while serving as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, held a news conference in Kuala Lumpur at which they unveiled the collective declaration.
“We wish to draw the attention of the people of Malaysia to the damage done to the country under the premiership of Dato’ Sri Najib Abdul Razak,” the declaration said at the outset.
The document delved into a long list of allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement connected to the cash-strapped state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and other firms linked to it.
Najib, who took power in 2009, established 1MDB that year as a vehicle for spurring development. He chairs its board of advisers.
The document also claimed that Najib’s government had blocked investigations into potential charges of corruption against him, particularly a deposit of 2.08 billion ringgit (U.S. $681 million) into his private bank accounts during the run-up to the 2013 general election.
This week the Wall Street Journal reported that the overall deposit, in fact, exceeded U.S. $1 billion and the money began to be funneled into Najib’s accounts as early as 2011. According to the Journal, global investigators believed that “much of it originated” with 1MDB.
Najib has denied any wrongdoing or that he used any of the money from the $681 million-deposit for personal gain. In January, Malaysia’s attorney general cleared the PM of potential corruption charges, saying the money was a donation from Saudi Arabia’s royal family.
Because of a series of 1MDB-linked scandals surrounding Najib, “today Malaysia's image is badly tarnished,” the declaration signed by Mahathir and 57 others said.
“Apart from being classified as one of the 10 most corrupt countries, Malaysia is now regarded as undemocratic,” the declaration went on to say.
“There is denial of freedom of speech and freedom of the press and people live in fear of arrest and detentions. Security laws are enacted to allow the prime minister (and not the King) to declare security areas where anyone could be arrested and detained without trial and tried under procedures that violate normal and fair criminal justice standards,” the declaration said.
It ended with a call for Najib’s removal as prime minister “through non-violent and legally permissible means,” as well as those officials who have “acted in concert with him.”
The document also called for a repeal of laws and agreements that “violate fundamental rights” guaranteed by Malaysia’s federal constitution, and the restoration of institutions whose integrity, it suggested, had been sullied under Najib such as the national police force, the central bank and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
‘It’s called a general election’
When he was in power, Mahathir himself was known for an authoritarian style of governance.
After he and his new allies issued their declaration, the Prime Minister’s Office shot back with a statement that brushed off their calls for Najib’s immediate ouster.
"Today, Tun Mahathir and his former enemies have demonstrated the depth of their political opportunism and desperation,” the office said.
"There is an existing mechanism to change the Government and Prime Minister. It’s called a general election. And it is the only mechanism that is lawful, democratic and fulfils the people’s will,” the PM’s office added.
Among Mahathir’s former foes who joined him in launching the “Save Malaysia” movement were Hishamuddin Rais, an activist whom Mahathir’s government had jailed under the now defunct Internal Security Act, and Lim Kit Siang, the head of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP).
Kit Siang told reporters he was putting has past enmity toward the 90-year-old Mahathir behind him, and focusing on working with the former PM and other figures “to solve the problems of 30 million people in the country who are dealing with various issues such as the economy, the high price of goods, inflation and so on.”
The declaration came a day after jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – another of Mahathir’s foes – announced that he would support him and others who were trying to bring about Najib’s removal from power.
But, although the deputy president of Anwar’s party was present at Friday’s news conference, it was not immediately clear whether Anwar intended to add his signature to the document.
When asked whether he would also campaign to have Anwar released from prison on a sodomy conviction, Mahathir told reporters, “Our focus is to get rid of Najib.”