Updated at 4:40 p.m. ET on 2018-05-15
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Tuesday said he intends to remain the nation’s leader for “one or two years” after leading the opposition to a stunning election victory last week.
Mahathir made the statement in an interview hours before the Pardons Board was expected to meet on Wednesday regarding his expected successor, Anwar Ibrahim, who is serving a five-year jail term on sodomy charges that his supporters say were orchestrated by ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak.
He also announced the release of an audit report into the financial scandal-plagued 1MDB state fund that had been frozen by Najib.
“In initial stages, in one or two years, I will be the prime minister and I would run the country,” Mahathir said, according to a transcript of a video conference with Wall Street Journal (WSJ) writers in Tokyo.
Mahathir had pledged during the campaign that he would hand over power to Anwar, but it was the first time he gave a concrete timeline.
“The reason why the public supported us is that they have faith in the leadership of the opposition to resolve some of the problems and this partly depends on the experience of the entities of the opposition. That includes me, of course, I was the leader of the opposition,” Mahathir told the WSJ.
“The public indicated they wanted me to lead for some time until some of the problem is resolved, but I myself am 93 years old. … will step down, but I will play a role in the background,” said Mahthir who turns 93 in July. “For the time being, I will run the country.”
Earlier, analysts said the lack of a fixed timetable for the turnover of power could provide a litmus test for the durability of the former political enemies’ alliance. Last week, when asked about turning power over to Anwar, Mahathir replied that the process could take a long time.
“There is likely to be a deal of early goodwill between the pair, given the historic nature of the election outcome,” Hugo Brennan, a Jakarta-based senior Asia analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, told Bloomberg News. “The question is to what extent this can be maintained over the longer term.”
The four-party opposition bloc Pakatan Harapan (PH) devastated the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition at the polls after Mahathir agreed to become the opposition’s driving force.
The WSJ said it obtained audio remarks from Anwar earlier Tuesday and quoted the jailed politician as saying that Mahathir should be given time to achieve his immediate objectives.
“It may take a year or slightly more, it’s up to him,” Anwar said, according to the WSJ. “I’m not in a rush.”
Responding to Mahathir’s statement, Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail agreed that her husband, Anwar, would not immediately take over from Mahathir.
She said the opposition coalition wants Mahathir’s government to run smoothly.
“We have discussed this together and we hope that under Dr. Mahathir everything will be dealt with smoothly,” she told reporters at the Cheras Rehabilitation Hospital, where Anwar, 70, has been undergoing treatment.
Mahathir, who governed the Muslim-majority nation for 22 years beginning in 1981, sacked Anwar as his deputy in September 1998. After he was fired, Anwar was arrested, convicted and jailed on corruption and sodomy charges. He consistently denied the charges.
His first sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004, but his corruption conviction stood and he is in jail on a subsequent sodomy conviction and would require the royal pardon to bypass a five-year ban for him to re-enter politics.
‘He was unsuitable to succeed me’
In his book “A Doctor in the House,” published in 2011, Mahathir recalled how he transformed his country from an agricultural backwater into an industrial powerhouse that became the 17th largest trading nation in the world. But he also defended his decision to dismiss Anwar.
“He was unsuitable to continue serving in the government and he was unsuitable to succeed me as prime minister,” he wrote. “I may have made many mistakes, but removing Anwar was not one of them.”
Last week, Mahathir told reporters that Anwar will have to be a member of the parliament first before he can become prime minister.
“Whether he will immediately join the cabinet or not will be decided when the time comes,” Mahathir said.
1MDB audit report declassified
On Tuesday, Mahathir summoned senior government officials, including the auditor general to Putrajaya, the country’s seat of government, four days after he instructed the police to lift the restriction placed on the 1MDB audit report.
In 2016, Najib’s government made it illegal to leak parts of the report by classifying it under the Official Secrets Act.
Malaysia made that classification as the United States was pursuing allegations of multi-billion dollar corruption involving officials at the scandal-plagued state fund.
According to the executive summary of the declassified report obtained by BenarNews, senior 1MDB officials “did not follow fully the decisions made by the board” and withheld information from its board.
“In a few instances, the management of 1MDB had presented information that was not complete nor accurate to the board of 1MDB before an important decision was made,” the report said.
In December 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the corruption allegations as “kleptocracy at its worst” and the U.S. Department of Justice said about $700 million had been siphoned off from 1MDB and had gone to Najib’s bank accounts.
Najib has denied allegations of wrongdoing and said the money was a political donation from the Saudi royal family.
Mahathir, in the WSJ video interview, vowed that no deal will be cut with Najib regarding the 1MDB probe. He said that many of the senior officers under Najib have been bringing in documents.
“I am now facing the problem of trying to trust people to investigate him because some of these people sided with him and we don’t know who is going to be loyal to this new government,” Mahathir said. “We are slowly getting to the bottom of things.”