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Dr M staying as interim PM until successor picked

It is unclear what Malaysia's political chiefs are planning next or who could form the next government

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The drama had been building for months as Dr Mahathir (right) refused to set a firm date for handing over power to Mr Anwar (left). After Dr Mahathir resigned on Monday, Mr Anwar did not say if he would stake a claim to forming a new government.

Kuala LumpurĀ 

MALAYSIA'S Mahathir Mohamad will stay on as interim premier until a successor is appointed after unexpectedly resigning on Monday.

The king accepted Dr Mahathir's resignation but he will manage the country's affairs until a new prime minister and Cabinet are appointed, said Chief Secretary Mohd Zuki Ali.

The decision, which Dr Mahathir did not explain, followed surprise talks over the weekend between members of his coalition and the opposition on forming a new government.

PKR president Anwar Ibrahim and people close to Dr Mahathir said he had quit after accusations that he would form some sort of partnership with opposition parties he defeated less than two years ago on an anti-corruption platform.

"He thought that he shouldn't be treated in that manner, to associate him in working with those we believe are blatantly corrupt," Mr Anwar told reporters after meeting Dr Mahathir on Monday morning. "He made it very clear that in no way would he work with those associated with the previous regime."

But it is unclear whether the resignation marks the end of the road for Dr Mahathir as a full-term premier, since at least three parties in his coalition called for him to stay on in office. Some in the opposition have also agreed to support him.

"The field is wide open for him," said Ibrahim Suffian, director of pollster Merdeka. "If he considers coming back as PM, he has the freedom to choose his partners or who he would like to be part of his Cabinet."

Dr Mahathir, who came out of retirement to run in the 2018 national election, also quit the Bersatu party he had formed shortly before the polls, three sources familiar with the matter said.

Dr Mahathir's resignation capped over 24 hours of speculation about the fate of the coalition after lawmakers from his coalition held meetings on Sunday with the opposition United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and Islamist party PAS.

It is unclear what the political leaders of the country are planning next or who could form the next government.

Sources say there could be a showdown between Mr Anwar and an alliance between Bersatu president Muhyiddin Yassin and Azmin Ali, who on Monday was sacked from Mr Anwar's party. Dr Mahathir also quit as chairman of his Bersatu party.

Constitutionally, any lawmaker who can command a majority in parliament can stake a claim to form the government. The king has to provide his assent before a prime minister can be sworn in.

If no one has simple majority of 112 in parliament, a fresh election is an option.

In public comments on Monday, Mr Anwar did not say if he would stake a claim to form a new government. He said he had met the king to express his views and seek his advice in the interest of the country.

"Seems like it will be up for grabs now," a second source said about the possibility of who will form the next government.

Pro-democracy organisation Bersih said attempts to form a "backdoor government" were undemocratic and a betrayal of voters' trust.

The drama had been building for months as Dr Mahathir refused to set a firm date for handing over power to Mr Anwar. The long-time rivals had joined hands ahead of elections in 2018 for a stunning victory that ousted the previous coalition, which had ruled Malaysia for six decades.

When the new administration took power, it sought to usher in a new era of transparency and good governance, marking a rare victory for democracy and openness in Asia.

It prosecuted former prime minister Najib Razak for corruption in the 1MDB scandal, and promised policies that aimed at helping Malaysians of all races rather than just the Malay majority.

The outcome of the power struggle could determine whether Malaysia continues moving toward policies that treat all races equally, or reverts toward a model aimed at giving preferential treatment to Malays and indigenous groups who make up nearly 70 per cent of the population.

Those policies had prompted many educated ethnic-Chinese and Indians to look for work overseas, draining South-east Asia's fourth-biggest economy of some of its top talent.

"This has never happened before in Malaysia," said James Chin, a Malaysian academic and a political analyst who heads the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. "What we have now is a political play to bring in a stronger Malay government, and that's essentially it. Previously the opposition were accusing the government of being too much under the control of the Chinese."

Mr Chin said the king could either determine which side has a majority, call for a delay to study the situation, or convince everyone to proceed with fresh elections.

While the monarchy's role in Malaysia is largely ceremonial, the king retains some discretionary powers and political leaders typically meet the ruler before announcing major political changes. REUTERS, BLOOMBERG