Ninety-two-year-old Mahathir Mohamad was Thursday sworn in as the world’s oldest elected leader after a stunning election win that swept Malaysia’s establishment from power after more than six decades.
In a huge political upset, former strongman Mahathir’s opposition alliance broke the grip on power of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which had governed Malaysia uninterrupted since its birth as an independent country in 1957.
It capped a dramatic comeback for Mahathir, who previously ruled the country with an iron fist for 22 years and came out of retirement to take on Prime Minister Najib Razak after the leader became embroiled in a massive corruption scandal.
In a ceremony at the national palace steeped in centuries-old Muslim Malay tradition, Mahathir was officially sworn in as prime minister by King Sultan Muhammad V.
Mahathir, wearing traditional Malay dress, took the oath of office in an elaborately decorated room, with political allies and senior government officials in attendance.
As he was inaugurated, hundreds of revellers outside the palace cheered and sang the national anthem, with some breaking down in tears. Fireworks lit up the night sky across Kuala Lumpur.
“We feel so united tonight,” 24-year-old student Abdul Aziz Hamzah, who was among the crowd, told AFP. “Mahathir is so insightful and experienced because he’s been here before.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of Mahathir’s comeback has been his reconciliation with jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, his former nemesis. Their relationship has loomed large over the Malaysian political landscape for decades.
Anwar was Mahathir’s heir-apparent until the premier sacked him in 1998 over political differences, and he was subsequently jailed on charges of sodomy and abuse of power.
Anwar was jailed again during Najib’s rule but is due out in June — and Mahathir has pledged to help him get a royal pardon, allowing him to run for political office again and potentially become prime minister.
– ‘Waiting so long’ –
The opposition faced an uphill battle at the election due to what critics said were no-holds-barred attempts by Najib to hang on to power.
His government was accused of gerrymandering while activists said he hurled cash and gifts at voters and there was a litany of problems with the electoral roll, including dead people appearing on the list.
Najib called the vote mid-week, in what critics said was an effort to keep turnout down — elections are normally held at a weekend in Malaysia. But in the end voters flocked to the polls in droves in a determined bid to push him out.
As it became clear that BN was facing a historic wipeout, Najib disappeared for hours and only surfaced Thursday morning to tell a press conference that he accepted the people’s will, but refused to offer a clear concession of defeat.
His comments were slammed by one analyst as “unstatesmanlike”.
The opposition’s shock victory triggered euphoria and a sense of relief that a leader who was accused of massive graft and fanning racial tensions in the multi-ethnic country was finally on his way out.
“We have been waiting for so long for this to happen,” Larson Michael, 35, a voter from just outside Kuala Lumpur, told AFP.
“(Mahathir) has come back to help us regain the country. Now we want to see if he will fulfil… his promises.”
The initial delight at the opposition victory will likely give way to some apprehension. Mahathir was also accused of being an authoritarian leader, and political opponents were thrown in jail during his time in office.
Najib’s defeat could be just the start of his problems — Mahathir has vowed to bring him to justice over allegations that billions of dollars were looted from sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, which the scandal-hit leader set up and oversaw.
In Mahathir, the opposition found the perfect person to take on Najib.
He is a staunch supporter of the country’s Muslim Malays who could appeal to the country’s biggest ethnic group, and whose years in power were remembered as a prosperous period in the country’s history.