MALAYSIA was in political disarray last night after a weekend in which the fundamentalist Islamic opposition leader died and the prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, resigned, then changed his mind.
Mr Mahathirís resignation on Saturday came as a bombshell at the annual conference of his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Senior delegates then persuaded him to stay on. The events puzzled observers, with opponents suggesting it could be a move by Mr Mahathir to strengthen his grip ahead of elections next year. The 76-year-old has held power for 21 years and is seen as irreplaceable by many countrymen.
Others, however, suggested that Mr Mahathir, after delivering his country from the abyss of the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis and the UMNO from its disaster in the 1999 election, had lost his stomach for the fight. The prime minister, who yesterday held a meeting with ministers before leaving on a previously unannounced ten-day holiday to Naples, is seen as a progressive Muslim leader, and a bulwark against Islamic hard-liners.
Fadzil Noor, leader of the fundamentalist Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), died yesterday without regaining consciousness after heart bypass surgery. His successor is to be a religious firebrand, Abdul Hadi Awang, who wants to push forward the PASís aim of turning Malaysia into an Islamic state. The federal government has already stopped the PAS using sharia laws in one of the two states it controls and will probably do likewise when the second state passes the laws next month.
Newspapers have speculated that Mr Mahathir is weary of preaching to ethnic Malay Muslims to use affirmative action policies put into place after race riots in the 1970s to improve themselves rather than treat them as a cash cow. Mr Mahathir has long juggled the advancement of Malay Muslims, who make up about 60 per cent of Malaysiaís 23 million people, against the interests of the ethnic Chinese and Indians who dominate business.
One of Mr Mahathirís sons, Mokhzani, dismissed talk that his father had been seeking to strengthen his grip on the party to push through reforms ethnic Muslim Malays would find hard to swallow after years of special treatment. "No, thatís not it. He just felt it was time for someone else to carry on," Mokhzani Mahathir said.
Supporters say Mr Mahathir has no need for gimmicks. He has made an extraordinary comeback both at home and abroad since the 11 September attacks on the United States. Internationally, a reputation sullied by the sacking and jailing of Anwar Ibrahim, his former deputy, has been restored. Anwar is serving 15 years for corruption and sodomy charges he says were fabricated after he challenged Mr Mahathirís leadership in 1998.
However, the weekendís developments could shake things up of elections that Mahathir loyalists have urged him to call a year early next year to erase gains by the fundamentalists in 1999 polls. Mr Fadzil cobbled together a since-disintegrated coalition to exploit public anger at the sacking of the popular Anwar, resulting in the UMNO winning less than half the Malay vote in that year.
Whatever the outcome, there is growing speculation that Mr Mahathir will not stay in power much longer. On Saturday, on national television, he broke down in tears as he said he was resigning. He was mobbed at the podium. Senior leaders took him to a back room. The deputy prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, appeared after an hour and said Mr Mahathir had been persuaded to stay.
However, sources say Mr Mahathir told them privately he was adamant he would hand over power.
"The urge to quit will grow stronger," said Chandra Muzzafar, a former opposition leader and a top political analyst.
The feeling yesterday among many was indeed that Mr Mahathir truly intended to quit, but may have miscalculated the pressure to stay on. "He was so emotional that when he started crying there was a chain reaction through the assembly," said an old cabinet colleague.
Mr Mahathir oversaw Malaysia as it became one of the richest nations in the region. He positioned himself as a moderate Muslim leader firmly opposed to terrorism.
Analysts said he would not have resigned unless he was sure that Malaysia would not suffer the chaos seen in Indonesia in 1998 when its strongman leader, President Suharto, fell from power.
The prime minister of neighbouring Singapore said it was good Mr Mahathir had agreed to stay, citing the need for stability in the region. "At this stage, the region cannot live with another political uncertainty in another country after Indonesia," Goh Chok Tong told Bernama news agency.