KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad on Friday joined hands with long-standing foes, including the party of the jailed Anwar Ibrahim, to crank up pressure on scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak to quit, marking a seismic political shift.
In a dramatic flourish, Mahathir read a statement signed by 58 politicians and anti-corruption activists at a news conference where he was flanked by opposition leaders and some members of the ruling party he has now quit.
“We call upon all Malaysians, irrespective of race, political affiliation, creed or parties, young and old, to join us in saving Malaysia from the government headed by Najib Razak,” the statement said.
One of those beside Mahathir was a close aide of his former protege, opposition leader Anwar, with whom he fell out when he was prime minister in the late 1990s.
Anwar issued a statement from prison a day earlier, saying he would “support the position” of those in civil society, political parties and individuals, including Mahathir, in the push to remove Najib.
Besides demanding the resignation of the prime minister, the so-called “core” group demanded the removal of those who had covered up misdeeds, the repeal of laws that violate fundamental rights and the restoration of institutions it said had been undermined, including the police and anti-graft agency.
The rainbow alliance had come together under Mahathir because its members were not powerful individually to loosen Najib’s grip on power, said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“Dr Mahathir is pulling together everybody with the lowest common denominator - dislike of Najib, as he did not succeed in earlier attempts to topple Najib,” he said.
A government spokesman criticized the move by Mahathir and his former enemies, saying it “demonstrated the depth of their political opportunism and desperation”.
“There is an existing mechanism to change the government and prime minister. It’s called a general election,” the spokesman said. “And it is the only mechanism that is lawful, democratic and fulfils the people’s will.”
Najib has faced sustained pressure to resign since the middle of last year over allegations of corruption linked to the debt-laden state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), and deposits into his private accounts worth around $680 million.
He has denied any wrongdoing, maintains that he did not use the funds for personal gain, and this year he was cleared of any criminal offense or corruption.
The 1MDB scandal has fueled a sense of crisis in a country under economic strain from slumping oil prices and a prolonged slide in its currency last year.
Mahathir, Malaysia’s longest-serving leader, was once Najib’s patron but has become his fiercest critic and, because of his enduring popularity, a thorn in the side of the prime minister.
Last week, he quit the United Malays National Organisation, which has led every ruling coalition since Malaysia’s independence in 1957, saying it had become Najib’s party and he did not want to be associated with corruption.
Also at Friday’s news conference was Muhyiddin Yassin, who was sacked as deputy prime minister last year after he openly questioned Najib on the 1MDB scandal. Another was Lim Kit Siang, an opposition leader and longtime nemesis of Mahathir.
Most striking was the attendance of Mohamed Azmin Ali, a right-hand man of Anwar, whom Mahathir sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998 and had jailed on sodomy charges that many observers said were politically motivated.
A year ago, Anwar was jailed again on sodomy charges he said were concocted by Najib’s government to eliminate the threat he posed to its hold on power.
Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Clarence Fernandez