June 6, 2017 / 10:43 AM / 3 years ago

Malaysia's Mahathir, 91, says would step in as prime minister if needed

TOKYO (Reuters) - Former Malaysian prime minister, the 91-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, said on Tuesday he would consider taking up the post again but only if there was no acceptable candidate after an opposition election victory.

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during an interview with Reuters in Putrajaya, Malaysia, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

Mahathir served as prime minister for 22 years until he stepped down in 2003. But he remained influential and has over the past couple of years emerged as a leader of opposition to Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Najib has been embroiled in a corruption scandal involving state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Najib has denied any wrongdoing and has managed to consolidate his power by sacking critics in his administration and clamping down on investigations even as the fund became the subject of money laundering investigations in the United States and at least five other countries.

Mahathir told a business forum he did not want to be prime minister though he was often asked about the possibility, adding he would consider leading the opposition into an election due by the middle of next year, if all opposition parties agreed.

“If there is really no candidate to become prime minister should the opposition win, then maybe for a short while I might try to take the job. But only on condition that everybody agrees,” he said.

Mahathir, Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, earned a reputation as a no-nonsense authoritarian with little time for dissenters promoting liberal values.

He quit the ruling United Malays National Organisation party last year in response to the graft allegations surrounding his former protégé, Najib. Mahathir formed a new party and joined the opposition coalition aiming to oust Najib.

The country’s most prominent opposition politician, Anwar Ibrahim, is in prison serving five years for a sodomy conviction that he says was politically motivated.

Government sources have told Reuters a general election could be held later this year in a bid to prevent Mahathir’s new party from gaining ground with the majority ethnic Malay Muslim community, the core voter base for Najib’s coalition.

Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Writing by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Robert Birsel

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