Malaysia's ruling party accepted former leader Mahathir Mohamad's resignation Thursday as government lawmakers snubbed his call to leave with him in a bid to force a leadership change.
Mahathir dropped a political bombshell Monday by announcing he was quitting the ruling United Malays National Organization party. He said he would rejoin if Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi resigns.
But after a four-hour emergency session that ended early Thursday, the party said Mahathir is free to leave. Abdullah has repeatedly said he will not quit immediately.
Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters that the party will accept Mahathir if he wants to come back but will not bow to his demands. He said Badawi has the full support of lawmakers from UMNO and its junior partners in the ruling National Front coalition.
"We do not anticipate an exodus from UMNO. Our party members are very loyal to UMNO. Any problems will be resolved within UMNO," he told reporters after a meeting of the top party leaders. Abdullah sat next to Najib at the news conference but said nothing.
"We have accepted the decision (by Mahathir) because it is his desire to leave the party. But we hope that he will return one day," Najib said.
Despite the show of support, Abdullah has his back to the wall and many political analysts say his days are numbered.
His troubles began after the National Front, which is dominated by UMNO, was delivered its worst electoral result in history during the March 8 general elections. It lost its traditional two-thirds majority in Parliament - scraping through with a simple majority - and conceded control of five of Malaysia's 13 states to the opposition.
The massive losses and the internal troubles caused by Mahathir have increased chances for the three-party opposition coalition, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, to form the next government.
Anwar said in Singapore on Wednesday that he, too, is looking to topple Abdullah. His coalition has 82 seats in the 222-member Parliament, 30 short of the number needed to form a government.
"I look forward to early elections, hopefully before September," Anwar said.
On Wednesday, the 82-year-old Mahathir stepped up his campaign against Abdullah, calling on lawmakers from UMNO's coalition partners in the National Front also to leave their parties and become independent.
But no lawmaker has so far heeded his call, and only some of Mahathir's family members and longtime loyalists have joined him in leaving the party.
Mahathir handed over power to Abdullah in 2003 after 22 years in office. But when Abdullah canceled several of Mahathir's mega-projects, Mahathir turned against his hand-picked successor, accusing him of promoting nepotism and not tackling corruption.