KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - “I feel like I should retire, I’m so old now. But when I see what’s happening in this country...,” 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad said at a youth meeting of his party on Sunday.
After his spectacular political gamble backfired and left him out of the prime minister’s office, the man who has dominated Malaysian politics for decades spent the day rallying opposition to the man who replaced him.
Mahathir was the world’s oldest head of government after a surprise comeback in a 2018 election, but his resignation a week ago triggered turmoil that he failed to control.
While he conceded that he would have to leave office on Sunday morning after former ally Muhyiddin Yassin was picked as prime minister by the king, he promised to challenge his successor’s legitimacy in parliament.
“If we go according to constitution, he is not the right prime minister,” Mahathir told reporters, looking little dismayed by the possibility that he might not regain power.
“The best proof of the pudding is the eating, so we need to have a parliament sitting now.”
In a career spanning more than seven decades, Mahathir transformed Malaysia into an industrial nation from a rural farming backwater during his first tenure from 1981 to 2003.
He came out of retirement after a corruption scandal at state fund 1MDB to form an alliance with protege-turned-fierce- rival Anwar Ibrahim, now 72, to end more than 60 years of rule by the coalition he once led.
In the process he unseated prime minister Najib Razak, another former ally who is now on trial for corruption.
Born in 1925 during the era of British colonial rule, the medical doctor emerged as a politician with a talent for playing to the feelings of the mainly Muslim ethnic Malay majority.
In 1981, he became prime minister for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and launched a mission of modernisation and grand construction projects such as Kuala Lumpur’s iconic twin towers.
But he was also accused of human rights abuses and detaining political opponents arbitrarily.
In 1998, he fell out with Anwar over the handling of the Asian financial crisis. After Anwar summoned opposition forces against Mahathir, he was jailed for sodomy on charges which he denied and said were politically motivated.
“Looking back now, I realise why, as prime minister of Malaysia, I was described as a dictator,” Mahathir wrote later.
He stepped down in 2003 for a hand-picked successor, but he never disappeared from view and remained vocal, often criticising the West and repeatedly claiming that Jews ruled the world by proxy and calling them “hook-nosed”.
It was the mismanagement under the leadership of Najib, another of his proteges, that brought Mahathir out of retirement and back together with Anwar.
But the relationship between the two men remained strained over a promise that Mahathir would one day hand over to Anwar. That helped precipitate Mahathir’s resignation in a bid to form a unity government that could have bolstered his power.
Mahathir said on Sunday that he was also under pressure to resign as Muhyiddin and others in his party tried to form a new alliance that would ditch Anwar and bring back UMNO.
“I had no choice. I had to resign,” Mahathir said. “That means I will be back with people I fought against because of their corruption.”
Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Mark Heinrich