KUALA LUMPUR, AFP
Malaysia’s veteran Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has again said he will step down before the next general election due by November 2004, Bernama news agency reported Thursday.
Mahathir, who has been in power since 1981, was vague about the timing but added: “The succession is determined.”
His current preferred successor is his deputy premier, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Mahathir, in an interview with the official agency Tuesday, was asked if he was committed to handing over the premiership just before the next election.
“Whether just before or long before, it will depend on our assessment,” he said.
Soon after the last election in November 1999, Mahathir said this would be his last term in office. He turned 75 on Dec. 20.
Elections must be held every five years but can be held at any time before the term expires.
“The reason why I keep people guessing is that any hint I make about my stepping down or whatever, it will have an effect on the economy and the market,” he said.
“And I don’t want my personal choice to have an effect on the market.”
Asked by Bernama if he were irreplaceable, Mahathir said: “No, I don’t think so (because) each prime minister is different from the other, his way of working, his style and his delivery.”
He said his National Front coalition and its largest party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), would continue the same policies, “perhaps with some slight improvements here and there but basically they will be the same policies.”
Mahathir’s sacking in September 1998 of his popular deputy Anwar Ibrahim, and Anwar’s subsequent jailing for abuse of power and sodomy, alienated many of UMNO’s traditional voters in the Malay community.
The party lost 22 seats in the last election.
Mahathir added: “I really feel that whether we like it or not, one day I have to go. If I drop dead, I won’t be around. Somebody has to take over and we have prepared our party for that eventuality.
“If I go, there are people who will take over from me. The succession is determined.”
Mahathir had a quadruple heart bypass operation in 1989 but appears to be fit and follows a punishing daily schedule.
He said he wanted to continue serving UMNO even after he retires.
“Maybe if they need to ask me any question about anything, I will be prepared to answer. If they want me to do some work … perhaps I will do it if I can,” he said.
Mahathir also denied opposition claims that he was a dictator, saying his Cabinet debated his ideas and could choose whether to accept them.