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Mahathir, Anwar vying to be the next Malaysian prime minister

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Malaysia's decades-old political rivals Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim both set out claims to lead the country on Wednesday after Dr Mahathir's shock resignation as prime minister on Monday.

Kuala Lumpur 

MALAYSIA'S decades-old political rivals Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim both set out claims to lead the country on Wednesday after Dr Mahathir's shock resignation as prime minister on Monday.

The struggle between Dr Mahathir, 94, and Mr Anwar, 72, who formed a surprise pact to win a 2018 election, has shaped Malaysian politics for more than two decades and is at the root of the latest crisis.

Dr Mahathir, the world's oldest head of government in his role as interim prime minister, proposed a unified administration without political party allegiances at a time when Malaysia faces a flagging economy and the impact of the novel coronavirus.

"Politics and political parties need to be put aside for now," Dr Mahathir said in a televised message. "I propose a government that is not aligned with any party, but only prioritises the interests of the country."

In his first public comments since his resignation, Dr Mahathir said he stepped down to dispel criticism that he was "power hungry" and would return if a majority of lawmakers supported him. He said he resigned because he would not accept the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), his former party that long ruled the country, forming an alliance with his Bersatu party. "If allowed, I will try to have a government that doesn't side with any party," Dr Mahathir said. "Only the country's best interests will be prioritised."

Mr Anwar later said he opposed forming a "backdoor government" and that three parties from the former Pakatan ruling coalition had proposed his name to the king as candidate for prime minister.

Mr Anwar said the coalition had invited Dr Mahathir to a meeting on Tuesday evening, but after he failed to show up, they decided to put him forward as their candidate. "Since the attempt to topple the government last week, we have remained steadfast in defending the mandate of the Malaysian people," Mr Anwar said.

"We wait for the decision of the king," he told a news conference.

To try to end the crisis, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has been meeting all 222 elected Members of Parliament (MPs) over two days.

Those in the meetings said they were asked to name their favoured prime minister or whether they wanted fresh elections.

Mr Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), or the People's Justice Party, has 39 seats, and alliance partners could potentially give it another 62.

While some politicians have openly voiced support for Dr Mahathir to stay in office, it was not clear whether enough of them would give him their backing.

A candidate must have the support of at least 112 MPs - but it was not clear whether Mr Anwar or Dr Mahathir would achieve that, heightening the chances of a snap election.

The political turmoil has cast a pall over a slowing economy that reported its worst growth rate since 2009, and hampers its ability to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and trade wars. The Malaysian ringgit reached the lowest level in more than two years.

This latest crisis between Mr Anwar and Dr Mahathir was prompted after Dr Mahathir resisted pressure to set a date for a promised transfer of power to Mr Anwar made ahead of the 2018 election.

As well as personal relationships, politics in Malaysia is shaped by a tangle of ethnic and religious interests. The largely Muslim country of 32 million is more than half ethnic Malay, but has large ethnic Chinese, Indian and other minorities.

A unity government cutting across party lines could give Dr Mahathir greater authority than during a spell as prime minister from 1981 until his retirement in 2003.

But the idea was rejected on Tuesday by an alliance of four parties including Umno, which ruled Malaysia for six decades until being defeated by Dr Mahathir's coalition in 2018.

The four parties said they had told the king they wanted a new election instead. After their election defeat under former prime minister Najib Razak, those parties' fortunes have been on the rise while the Pakatan coalition of Dr Mahathir and Mr Anwar has lost five by-elections. REUTERS, AFP, BLOOMBERG