Mahathir Mohamad emerged triumphant after leading Malaysia’s main opposition bloc to an upset victory early Thursday (local time) against a ruling coalition he had helped entrench as the country’s dominant political power.
Mahathir, who will turn 93 on July 10, sprang out of political retirement two years ago, demanding clean government. He later became the opposition’s driving force and held true to a vow of demolishing the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition at the polls. He is now poised to become the world's oldest prime minister.
His four-party Pakatan Harapan (PH) bloc ousted Barisan, led by his former protégé, Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose nine years in power were tarnished by corruption allegations.
On Wednesday night, hours after at least 70 percent of 15 million registered voters turned out to cast their ballots, Mahathir claimed that Pakatan had won enough parliament seats in the general election, allowing it to form the next government.
“It would seem that we have practically achieved that figure of 112 and the figure for BN is very much less than that,” Mahathir told reporters. “This isn’t fake news. They are left far behind. The likelihood is that they would not be forming the government.”
The final results posted Thursday morning (local time) on the Malaysian Election Commission’s website showed that Pakatan had won at least 113 seats, one seat above the threshold of 112 parliamentary seats needed to clinch a simple majority and choose a new prime minister.
In the run-up to the May 9 election, pollsters and analysts predicted that Mahathir and Pakatan likely would win the popular vote away from Barisan but would not capture enough seats for a parliamentary majority, partly because of a newly reconfigured electoral map that, according to observers and critics, appeared to boost the ruling bloc’s chances of winning.
In the 2013 election, BN lost the majority of votes but clung to power by pulling in 133 seats.
Mahathir, a former medical doctor nicknamed “Doctor M,” governed the Muslim-majority nation with an iron fist for 22 years beginning in 1981.
During his rule, he helped transform Malaysia into one of Southeast Asia’s most-prosperous nations.
On Feb. 29, 2016, Mahathir left the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the anchor party in a ruling bloc that has dominated Malaysian politics since independence from Britain in 1957.
But to help bring down Najib, Mahathir said UMNO must be demolished.
During an interview with BenarNews in September 2016, Mahathir described UMNO as “beyond resuscitation, beyond turning around.”
“It has become very bad. It has become very, obviously, very corrupt. The leaders are corrupt,” he said.
Mahathir stunned the nation when he bolted to the opposition and joined forces with his arch nemesis, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, whom he once sent to jail on a sodomy charge. Anwar is now serving a prison term over a separate sodomy conviction, but is expected to be released in June.
The son of a school principal, Mahathir was educated at Sultan Abdul Hamid College, one of Malaysia’s oldest and most prestigious schools, based in his home state of Kedah.
He launched his political career in 1946 when he joined UMNO. After receiving his degree in medicine from the University of Malaya, Mahathir worked as a government health officer and later ran a private medical practice in Kedah for seven years.
He was elected to parliament in 1964 and appointed as the country’s fourth prime minister on July 16, 1981.
At the peak of his leadership, Mahathir developed Malaysia’s high-tech industry. He also oversaw the building of mega projects, including the Petronas Twin Towers – the world’s tallest buildings until 2004.
From 1991 to 1995, the country experienced economic growth with a low unemployment rate.
But during his term as prime minister, Mahathir also faced criticisms after he ordered the arrests and detention of more than 100 people, including opposition leaders and activists, under the internal security act in 1987. About 30 years later, Mahathir stopped short of apologizing, but accepted blame for the arrests.
During an interview with Bloomberg News last month, Najib described Mahathir as a person “obsessed about control, about calling the shots.”
U.S. authorities allege that between 2009 and 2014, top executives of 1MDB and Najib’s associates looted at least $4.5 billion from the fund in a complex money-laundering scheme through acquisition of properties and bank deposits in the United States, Singapore, Switzerland and other countries.
Najib has not yet issued an official comment on the election tally. No BN leader made any comments to reporters gathered at UMNO party headquarters on Wednesday.