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AP Interview: Mahathir sees new role as powerbroker

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) – At 95, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad isn’t yet done with politics.

The veteran politician, who had returned to power in 2018 but lasted only 22 months, is not giving up fight against what he said was a return of corrupt practices and a rollback of reforms under his successor, Muhyiddin Yassin.

In August, Mahathir formed the Pejuang (Fighters) party, months after his reformist government was ousted in a political coup and he was sacked from his own party.

He told The Associated Press in an interview Friday that Malaysia’s governing coalition isn’t likely to call for early elections due to political infighting and foresees his new ethnic Malay party to be the powerbroker in the next polls.

“We will not form a government by ourselves … we are the third party. We believe that we are not very big but we are big enough to play a middleman role in the country,” the two-time prime minister said.

Mahathir said he believed that neither Muhyiddin’s new coalition nor the opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim can obtain more than 50% of votes. If Pejuang can win just 30 seats, it can be the kingmaker and will then decide which side it will support, he said.

Mahathir quit in protest in late February after Muhyiddin pulled their Bersatu party out of the ruling alliance to form a Malay-centric government with the opposition. It included the party of ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is on trial on multiple graft charges.

But Muhyiddin’s government is shaky with only a slim two-seat majority in Parliament and he faces pressure from his allies to call for early elections.

Mahathir said Muhyiddin is likely to try to hold on until 2023 rather than seeking snap polls. His Bersatu is dwarfed by Najib’s party, which will want to reclaim the premiership after the polls, he said.

Parties in Muhyiddin’s coalition are divided and “he is not so confident of calling for elections now unless he wants to commit suicide,” Mahathir said. He warned an election win for Muhyiddin’s government would be a disaster for Malaysia’s growth and development.

Muhyiddin has created a bloated Cabinet and appointed politicians to replace professionals heading government-linked companies to buy their support, he said. The government also recently withdrew a proposed bill to limit the prime minister to two terms.

“I find that corruption is the worst thing in this country now … if they win, I am sorry because I think this government is as corrupt as Najib’s government,” he said. His Pejuang party contested a recent state by-election and lost badly because he said many voters were paid to cast ballot for the government. He offered no evidence.

Mahathir was prime minister for 22 years until he retired in 2003. Upset by a massive financial scandal involving the 1MDB state investment fund, he made a comeback and joined hand with the opposition to oust Najib’s long-ruling coalition. But his new government only lasted 22 months.

On hindsight, Mahathir admitted lack of foresight to prevent his government’s ouster. Although he heard rumors about efforts to form a backdoor government, he said he “didn’t think it would happen” nor expected Malays to support Najib who was recently convicted and faces 12 years in prison in his first corruption trial.

He said vote-buying will make it tough for Pejuang to woo ethnic Malay voters, who form two-thirds of Malaysia’s 23 million people. There are large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities. A recent poll also showed high approval rating for Muhyiddin over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I want to earn my KSM title… ‘kerja sampai mati’ (work till death),” Mahathir said. “If I can do something about corruption, I will be happy, that’s all. I am not talking about legacy. What people think of me doesn’t matter to me because I will be dead and gone.”

On the international front, Mahathir said he viewed President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign with trepidation. He said Trump refused to listen to experts over the COVID-19 outbreak and by likening it to a flu, caused infections in the U.S. to soar and many to die.

“It would (also) be very harmful for global relations because this man is irrational,” he said.

“American presidents are not all very good. Many of them make mistakes but he is worse. If he is reelected, I am sorry for America, I am sorry for the rest of the world,” Mahathir said.

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