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Mahathir Remains Prime Minister, Says Malaysia's Ruling Party - 2002-06-24

Malaysia's ruling party is insisting Mahathir Mohamad is still prime minister, despite his public announcement Saturday that he is quitting. Party and coalition leaders say they will meet Tuesday to hammer out a plan for Mr. Mahathir to gradually reduce his role in government.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad stunned his nation Saturday when he tearfully told his party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) that he was stepping down.

The leader left Sunday for a 10-day overseas holiday, never publicly retracting his resignation, although his deputy quickly assured the nation Mr. Mahathir had been convinced to stay on.

But the question among Malaysian politicians Monday was, for how long?

UNMO officials and source close to the prime minister say he is intent on leaving politics after 21 years as Malaysia's leader, the longest serving in Asia.

Both UMNO and its coalition partners will meet Tuesday to clarify the situation. Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is expected to announce a blue-print and timetable for Mr. Mahathir to withdraw from public life.

But analysts remain skeptical, among them Abdul Rashid Moten, a professor of political science at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur. "I don't think that Prime Minister Mahathir will step down at this moment because given the kind of support that he has received I don't think he will abandon his leadership at this very moment," he said. "The moment he comes back he will continue as usual and perhaps with much more vigor."

William Case, a specialist on Malaysian politics at West Australia's Griffith University, says he believes Mr. Mahathir's dramatic move to resign was orchestrated to test his political support and UMNO's chances in the next elections. "His chief intent was to be dramatic," he said. "Mr. Mahathir wants to be able to say that if the party doesn't want me then here is your opportunity to get rid of me, with the full expectation that of course they wouldn't demand that."

Mr. Case says Mr. Mahathir, the consummate politician, has offered to resign in the past in similar dramatic fashion, only be to urged by UMNO party supporters to stay on.

Asian reaction was mixed. In Singapore, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said Mr. Mahathir should remain in office to avoid political strife in Malaysia that could create uncertainties for the region.

But former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan says Malaysia's political drama highlights the need within Asia to move beyond relying on individual leaders and personalities. "Personalities are important," he said, "but more important than that, I think we must evolve certain regional policies that every member [of ASEAN] can sign on, and is committed to carrying regional policies and approaches into the future beyond and above personalities."

Mr. Surin says the region needs to build long term structures of cooperation and regional relationships that can survive those individual leaders who come and go.