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Malaysia's brand-new prime minister is now the world's oldest elected leader

Mahathir Mohamad, who came out of retirement to contest Wednesday’s election, led his opposition coalition to an upset victory.

by Tim Hume
May 10 2018, 4:03pm

Mahathir Mohamad became the world’s oldest elected leader Thursday after he was sworn in as prime ministerof Malaysia at the age of 92. His shock victory marks a major political upheaval for the country.

Mohamad, who came out of retirement to contest Wednesday’s election, led his opposition coalition to an upset victory over Barisan Nasional, the coalition that in various forms has led the country since independence in 1957. Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan — the Alliance of Hope — won a simple majority with 113 of the 222 seats, while Barisan Nasional suffered a bloodbath at the polls, losing more than 50 seats to finish with 79.

Mahathir announced a two-day public holiday to mark the victory, and said his coalition would “restore the rule of law.”

Mahathir is no stranger to Malaysian politics, having previously led the country from 1981 to 2003 with an authoritarian grip. He was the leader of Barisan Nasional back then, but the 92-year-old defected to the opposition on his return to politics this year, unseating his former protégé, the scandal-plagued former prime minister Najib Razak.

Razak has been under scrutiny since he was accused of channeling $700m from a state investment fund into his personal bank account in 2015. He was cleared by the country’s authorities, but Mahathir pledged on the campaign trail that he would be properly investigated.

“If the law says Najib has done something wrong, then he will have to face the consequences,” Mahathir said.

Despite the heavy defeat for the ruling coalition, Razak did not go quietly, suggesting Thursday morning that because no single party within the winning coalition won a majority, it was up to Malaysia’s king to decide on the victor.

“The king will be making a decision as to who will be the prime minister,” he said.

Reports surfaced that the king was refusing to swear Mahathir in, after times for the ceremony were announced and passed without any developments.

The swearing in eventually took place at about 10 p.m. local time (10 a.m. ET). Supporters cheered outside the royal palace in Kuala Lumpur as took the oath inside.

Mahathir’s previous decades-long tenure was marked by an iron grip on power; he was known for using security laws to imprison political opponents. But his political comeback may not be a long one. Upon his return to politics, he said he intended to govern for only two years before stepping aside.

Should he follow through on that, his seat may be taken by another political veteran, Anwar Ibrahim. Mahathir promised on the campaign trail that one of his first acts in office would be to orchestrate a pardon for Anwar, his former deputy prime minister, who is currently in jail after being found guilty of sodomy in 2015.

Anwar maintains that the charges – the second time he has been imprisoned for the offense – were politically motivated. If Anwar is granted a royal pardon, the path would be clear for him to succeed Mahathir in coming years.

Cover image: Mahathir Mohamad reacts as he speaks during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Thursday, May 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

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Najib Razak
Anwar Ibrahim
Malaysian politics
Mahathir Mohamad