Malaysia's 97-year-old former leader Mahathir Mohamad announced Tuesday he will defend his seat in the general elections expected next month, though he wouldn't say whether he would be prime minister a third time if his political alliance wins.
“We have not decided who will be prime minister because the prime minister candidate is only relevant if we win,” Mahathir told a news conference.
Though unlikely, he would be the oldest ever candidate for the post, which has a five-year term.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob dissolved Parliament on Monday for snap polls, caving in to pressure from his United Malays National Organization party, which is hoping for a big win on its own amid feuds with allies in the ruling coalition. The Election Commission will meet on Oct. 20 to fix a date for the vote, which must be held within 60 days of Parliament’s dissolution.
Despite his age and a health scare this year, Mahathir said he will defend his parliamentary seat in Langkawi island. He also warned that a win by the ruling UMNO party could see imprisoned ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak pardoned and let off the hook.
Mahathir was a UMNO premier for 22 years until his retirement in 2003. Then, in 2016, he was inspired to return to politics by the massive looting of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state fund during Najib’s term in office and rode a wave of public anger to lead the opposition to a historic victory in 2018 polls that ousted UMNO, which had ruled since the country's independence from Britain in 1957.
Mahathir became the world’s oldest head of government at 93, and oversaw graft charges against Najib and other UMNO leaders. But his reformist alliance collapsed in less than two years due to defections, returning UMNO to power under a new coalition government.
After his government’s collapse in 2020, Mahathir formed the Pejuang party and a new alliance with several small parties.
Mahathir, echoing both the opposition and UMNO allies, slammed UMNO on Tuesday for putting its own interest first in rushing elections during the annual monsoon season in November that brings major floods. He said UMNO aims to win big by offering bribes and money to the people.
He said UMNO's main objective is to free Najib, who began his 12-year jail term in August after losing his final appeal in a corruption case linked to the 1MDB scandal. Najib also faces several other trials linked to 1MDB that could lengthen his jail term if he is found guilty. UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is also on trial for dozens of graft charges unrelated to the 1MDB case.
“If they win this election, their first move would be to ask (Malaysia's king) to pardon Najib. At this moment, they have made a request but has not been pardoned," Mahathir said. "Should they be able to win and form the government, that is their first objective, not about the welfare of the people."
Mahathir said his political alliance hasn't been approved by the government and that some 120 candidates will run under Pejuang's banner in Malay-dominated parliamentary seats.
Analysts said Mahathir's pull may no longer appeal to ethnic Malay voters who supported him in 2018. UMNO, which had only 36 out of 222 lawmakers in the just-dissolved Parliament, believes many Malays have returned to its fold following its landslide victory in recent byelections.
The Alliance of Hope, which Mahathir led to victory in 2018 polls, remains the key contender with 90 lawmakers. Its prime minister candidate is Anwar Ibrahim, who was originally due to succeed Mahathir before their government collapsed.
While Mahathir competes head-on with UMNO and others for votes of Malays, who account for two-thirds of Malaysia's 33 million people, Anwar's alliance remains on a multi-racial platform. Ethnic Chinese and Indians form large minorities in the country.
Anwar said Monday that the election will be a time for the people to vote out traitors who led to the collapse of his alliance government in 2020.
“Did you think we could reverse 60 years of entrenched corruption and kleptocracy with just one election? Did you think these conniving robbers and thieves would just give up?" Anwar said in a statement. “We don’t give up, either. We don’t give up, ever."