Mahathir to make complete break with power next year

Jalil Hamid and Barani Krishnan,KUALA LUMPUR, Reuters

Veteran Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, greeting rapturous supporters on his return from an Italian holiday, said on Wednesday that when he steps down next year he will make a complete break with power.

The 76-year-old premier, speaking for the first time since his tearful resignation on live television on June 22, confirmed statements from the ruling UMNO party that he would hand over power to Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi after October 2003.

“I have already made it clear that when I leave, I leave completely,” Mahathir told a news conference. That would contrast with the path taken by his contemporary, former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who still serves in an advisory capacity.

“I was also following something my mother taught me. When you are enjoying a real good meal, stop when the food is still good. So, I guess it’s good for me to stop now,” said Mahathir, prime minister since 1981, amidst laughter.

“I initially asked for a month (transition) but that was not accepted. I then decided on 16 months so that I could also see through the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference) meeting. At the same time, I got their (ruling party) word there would not be any power struggle and undesirable events in the party.”

He told the news conference at the air force base where he landed he would also stay on as finance minister of the multi-ethnic Southeast Asian country until October next year.

Wearing a double-breasted suit with a blue polo shirt, Mahathir looked relaxed as he fielded questions from a throng of media, in contrast to the tearful leader the nation saw when he made his shock resignation 11 days ago.

“Parting is always sad and about three-quarters of my life has been spent with the party, so of course I was sad,” he said, when asked about that sudden burst of emotion.

He assured the country, still coping with the departure of the only prime minister many of its 23 million people have ever known, that there would be no policy changes in the interim. Abdullah, a 62-year-old Islamic scholar, is viewed as a consensus seeker and the “nice guy” of politics.

Mahathir steered Malaysia out of the 1997/98 Asian currency crisis by controversially fixing its currency against the U.S. dollar and slapping on capital controls.

Despite his brash outspokenness, it was clear Mahathir will be missed.

At the welcome home rally, an older Chinese man said he had travelled from southern Johor state to greet his leader: “I love him. I can’t see him going.” The crowd waved Malaysian flags and the red and white colors of Mahathir’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Large banners proclaimed “Always Our Leader” and the crowd punctuated his five-minute speech with chants of “Long live Mahathir.” He thanked them repeatedly in his native Malay.

Abdullah, looking somber, stood to his left, and Mahathir’s wife Siti Hasmah stood on his other side with one of their granddaughters. They have 15 grandchildren.

Mahathir was set to chair a Cabinet meeting later on Wednesday.