Opposition leader and veteran politician, Mahathir Mohamad was invited by Malaysia's king to form a government after the victory of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) over the government of Najib Razak's Barisan Nasional.

Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's new prime minister and leader of the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), holds up an ink-stained finger as he votes during the general election that ousted the sitting government and installed the opposition alliance in power, Malaysia, May 9, 2018.
Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's new prime minister and leader of the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), holds up an ink-stained finger as he votes during the general election that ousted the sitting government and installed the opposition alliance in power, Malaysia, May 9, 2018. (Reuters)

Mahathir Mohamad, 92, was sworn in on Thursday as Malaysia's prime minister. The ceremony came after he met the king who invited him to form a government.

Mahathir's opposition alliance scored a shock victory at the polls to break the grip on power of the Barisan Nasional (BN) or National Front coalition, which has governed Malaysia uninterrupted since its birth as an independent country in 1957.

The victory of Mahathir's Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) capped a dramatic comeback for the veteran campaigner, who governed the country for 22 years and came out of retirement to take on Prime Minister Najib Razak after the leader became embroiled in a corruption scandal.

TRT World's Arabella Munro reports.

Mahathir and his wife Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali were driven into the national palace in Kuala Lumpur for an audience with the king, passing hundreds of supporters waving flags and chanting the national anthem.

Mohamad Azlan Shah, a member of Mahathir's party in the crowd, said he was "very proud."

"Our struggle to change Malaysian politics is not wasted. We believe Mahathir can make a change," he said.

As it became clear that BN was facing a historic wipeout, Najib kept a low profile before surfacing Thursday morning to tell a press conference that he accepted the people's will, although he stopped short of conceding defeat.

The opposition's shock victory triggered a sense of relief that a leader who was accused of massive graft and fanning racial tensions in the multi-ethnic country could be on his way out.

"We have been waiting for so long for this to happen," said Larson Michael, 35, a voter from just outside Kuala Lumpur.

"[Mahathir] has come back to help us regain the country. Now we want to see if he will fulfil his promises."

The new lease on political life for Mahathir

In a lively news conference peppered with his trademark wisecracks, he flagged significant changes for Malaysia, which he described as being left in a "mess" by Najib and the National Front coalition.

"We need to have this government today without delay," Mahathir said. 

"There is a lot of work to be done. You know the mess the country is in and we need to attend to this mess as soon as possible and that means today. So we expect that today, well, I'll be sworn in as prime minister."

The election result is a political earthquake for the Muslim-majority country, ending the BN's unbroken 60-year rule and sweeping aside Najib, whose reputation was tarnished by a massive corruption scandal, a crackdown on dissent and the imposition of an unpopular sales tax that hurt many of his coalition's poor rural supporters.

Mahathir's supporters

Supporters of the incoming government took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to celebrate their unexpected victory. Many analysts had thought the BN might lose the popular vote but cling to a majority in parliament due to an electoral system that gave more power to its rural Malay supporters.

People stood on roadsides waving the white, blue and red flag of the opposition alliance that triumphed in Wednesday's election. Cars honked their horns as they sped past.

"I'm so happy," said Zarini Najibuddin while waving the opposition flag. "I hope we'll have a better Malaysia now. Malaysia reborn!"

Challenges for Mahathir, and the problem of 1MDB

But Ibrahim Suffian, co-founder of the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, said the new government will have to contend with "enormous forces of inertia and resistance from within the government elites."

"The bureaucracy and the rest of the government apparatus has never been used to this idea, having been, you know, more than 60 years under the same political party," he said.

Mahathir, prime minister for 22 years until stepping down in 2003, was credited with modernising Malaysia but was also known as a heavy-handed leader who imprisoned opponents and subjugated the courts.

Angered by the graft scandal at state investment fund 1MDB, Mahathir emerged from political retirement and joined the opposition in an attempt to oust Najib, his former protege.

The US Justice Department says $4.5 billion was looted from 1MBD by associates of Najib between 2009 and 2014, including $700 million that landed in Najib's bank account and a $23 million pink diamond necklace bought for Najib's wife. He has denied wrongdoing.

Mahathir said the new government will not conduct a witch hunt, but Najib will have to face the consequences if he had broken the law.

Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at John Cabot University in Rome, said it was hugely ironic that Mahathir, who damaged Malaysia's democratic institutions with his strong-arm rule, has returned as its political saviour.

"It is not just a comeback," she said. "It is about making amends about his mistakes and moving Malaysia forward."

TRT World spoke with Ibrahim Suffian, Director of the Merdeka Center - an independent Malaysian research firm - who said Malaysian people demanded change and got it at the ballot box.

Pardon for Anwar Ibrahim

Mahathir said the new government would seek the release and full pardon of Anwar Ibrahim, an opposition leader imprisoned on sodomy charges that Anwar and his supporters said were fabricated by the National Front to crush the opposition. 

Anwar, whose sentence ends on June 8, should be free to participate in politics, he said. Anwar, a former deputy prime minister in the ruling party, was also imprisoned under Mahathir following a power struggle.

TRT World spoke with Nurul Izzah Anwar - a current MP and the daughter of Anwar Ibrahim (ally of Mahathir Mohamad) - on the political transition the country has seen.

Economic challenges and 'fake news'

On the economic front, Mahathir vowed to cancel a goods and service tax imposed since 2015 and said the government could also renegotiate the terms of Chinese loans for infrastructure projects.

He criticised a "fake news" law pushed through parliament by the National Front during the lead-up to the election. Mahathir is being investigated under that law for claiming a plane he was to travel on was sabotaged during the campaign.

Mahathir disputed Najib's assertion during a concession speech that Malaysia's king must appoint the new prime minister because no single party has a parliamentary majority, calling it "confusion." 

The constitution, he said, only specifies that the prime minister must represent those with a majority in the legislature. Opposition parties won more than 135 seats in the 222-seat parliament.

In his speech, Najib, 64, said he accepted the "verdict of the people."

The National Front "will honour the principle of democracy in the parliament," he said.

'Oppressive and unfair' laws to be abolished

Mahathir said that he will try to make the ringgit currency as steady as possible, and return billions of dollars lost in a graft scandal.

"We believe that we can get most of the 1MDB money back ... we have to increase the confidence of investors in the administration," he said at a press conference after being sworn in as the seventh prime minister of Malaysia.

He added that some of Malaysia's debt was "too big" and needed to be renegotiated.

Mahathir said the new government would abolish "oppressive and unfair" laws and study the new anti-Fake News law and the national security council act. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies