Malaysia's Prime Minister to Step Down After 2 Decades
By RAYMOND BONNER
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, June 25 — Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, a man who has been a bitter critic of the West but whose tight hold over this Muslim country made him a new ally against Islamic militants, announced today that he would be stepping down after two decades in power.
Though his popularity at home and his reputation abroad have rarely been higher, Dr. Mahathir, 76, said through a government spokesman that he would leave office on Oct. 25, 2003.
"The decision is final," Khalil Yaakob, the information minister, said here in a nationally televised news conference.
The announcement ended a long era and a short drama that began on Saturday, when Dr. Mahathir, who has been in power longer than all but five other men on the world stage, concluded a two-hour speech at a party conference by saying that he was resigning.
It seemed to catch everyone in this country of 21 million by surprise, including his closest political associates, foreign diplomats and even his wife, who seemed to gasp when she heard the words.
Pandemonium erupted in the hall, and anguished cries of disbelief rose from party loyalists. In a hastily called closed-door meeting, leaders of his party pleaded with him to retract his statement, which he did.
But Dr. Mahathir, who has a well-earned reputation for speaking his mind, which brought him into frequent conflict with Washington, remained determined. During a Sunday morning meeting at the prime minister's residence, party officials and cabinet ministers, who owe their positions to Dr. Mahathir, only persuaded him to adopt a prolonged transition period.
Then the man who has taken care of everything for 21 years went off on vacation to Italy, leaving his deputies to clean up.
They announced today that Dr. Mahathir had chosen as his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is now deputy prime minister.
Mr. Abdullah, 62, who has been in politics most of his adult life, became deputy four years ago, after the man who was the front runner to succeed Dr. Mahathir, Anwar Ibrahim, made a premature move for power.
Not ready to step down at that time, Dr. Mahathir forced Mr. Ibrahim from office. Mr. Ibrahim was later convicted on what are widely considered trumped-up charges of corruption and sodomy. He remains in prison.
Today, Mr. Abdullah said that Dr. Mahathir had decided to step down for the simple reason that he feels he has served long enough. "There is no other reason," he said.
Malaysian and foreign observers found that hard to swallow. But they were equally dumbfounded as they searched for another reason.
"There's no single convincing explanation what triggered it," said a Western ambassador. "It's a bit puzzling." He added that his government had been operating under the assumption that Dr. Mahathir would remain on the scene as long as his health permitted.
Dr. Mahathir has made a career of shocking, and following his own counsel. He is not a free-market capitalist; the state controls large sectors of the economy. But he is certainly no Communist; all the gleaming skyscrapers in the capital are proof enough of that.
He is not a democrat; though he has held elections, the playing field has hardly been level, and the media here are not free and independent. But neither has he been a dictator; he has not used the army, the police or brutal methods to retain his hold on power.
He blamed the Asian financial crises, of 1998, on money speculators, foremost among them George Soros, and his accusations were tinged with anti-Semitism.
He has been a constant irritant to the White House, entertaining Fidel Castro as recently as last year, and calling for an end to sanctions against Iraq. He has railed against the West, but recently began a move to have English more widely taught in Malaysian schools, a necessity if Malaysia is to develop, he has said.
Under Dr. Mahathir, Malaysia has been one of the most stable countries in Asia. There have been no coups, nor blood baths among the country's ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians.
It is a modern, moderate Islamic state — young Muslim women wear scarves, tight jeans and platform shoes — one that in the post-Sept. 11 environment, Washington would like to see copied elsewhere.
Since Sept. 11, Washington has found Dr. Mahathir not so unpalatable after all. He condemned the terrorist attacks, and has provided the United States with intelligence on the activities of Islamic radicals here, including some who were involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
In April, Dr. Mahathir got something that had eluded him during his entire reign — an invitation to the White House, the first state visit for a Malaysian leader.
Dr. Mahathir's hand-picked successor is not expected to bring about any radical change in Malaysia's policies, at least not in the short term. He is a moderate Muslim with a degree in Islamic studies who has served as education minister and defense minister.
"Even though the trigger was mysterious and messy," a diplomat said, referring to the events of the last three days, "the transition looks orderly."