Asia Politics

Malaysia's 93-year-old leader on when he will step down: 'I will not go beyond three years'

Key Points
  • Questions over when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will step down and who will succeed him have intensified in recent weeks.
  • The 93-year-old leader told CNBC he will step down within three years and hand over the reins to Anwar Ibrahim — his protege-turned-rival before the two reconciled again to win last year's general elections.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (right) raises up Anwar Ibrahim's hand during by-election campaign in Port Dickson, Malaysia on October 8, 2018.
Adli Ghazali | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Mahathir Mohamad, the 93-year-old prime minister of Malaysia, said on Saturday that he will step down within three years and hand over the reins to Anwar Ibrahim — his protege-turned-rival before the two reconciled again to win last year's general elections.

Questions on when Mahathir will step down and who will succeed him have intensified in recent weeks. Even though Mahathir had said publicly that Anwar will replace him, there was speculation that the prime minister preferred his successor to be Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali.

And Mahathir's seeming refusal to commit to a clear timeline on when he will hand over power raised concerns about the stability of the Malaysian government, especially since the popularity of the ruling coalition has plunged.

"As far as I'm concerned, I have made a promise that I will step down and that Anwar will succeed me," the prime minister told CNBC's Tanvir Gill in Bangkok, Thailand, where he's attending a summit for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Mahathir had earlier said that his government needs three years to reduce Malaysia's debt from 80% of gross domestic product to 54%. When asked whether he would stay in office to see out that goal, Mahathir said: "No, I will not go beyond three years."

Instead, he said his priority is to enable Malaysia to "resolve this (debt) problem" even after he steps down.

Messy scenario

Before his current stint as Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir held the same position in 1981-2003 when he led the Barisan Nasional — a political coalition that ruled Malaysia for 61 years before losing last year's general elections. Anwar was Mahathir's deputy in 1993-1998 before he was sacked, launching his career as an opposition political leader.

The two patched up when Mahathir turned against the coalition he once headed, partly because of the 1MDB scandal. Many political analysts said Mahathir was a major factor behind Barisan Nasional's election defeat last year.

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But given Mahathir's age, many analysts have also said that time is not on his side, and the prime minister should set a clear transition plan to minimize uncertainties in the country.

"There remains the risk, even though Mahathir often seems sprightlier than most of his cabinet, that the premier's health suddenly deteriorates, forcing him to step down before succession plans are firmed up," Peter Mumford, practice head of Southeast and South Asia at risk consultancy Eurasia Group, wrote in a recent note.

"This scenario could get very messy," he added.