Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said he will completely give up his leadership roles next year. Mr. Mahathir arrived home from a 10-day vacation to an enthusiastic welcome from more than 10,000 people. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters he has made it clear to party officials that once he steps down he will not serve as an elder statesman. "I have already made it clear that when I leave, I leave completely. I am not going to hold any position either in the party or in the government. It is my duty to support the party, to support the government, whatever I may think about the policies of the government," Mr. Mahathir said.
Malaysian politics were thrown into turmoil 11 days ago at the annual gathering of Mr. Mahathir's party the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO. The prime minister stunned the audience by tearfully saying he was stepping aside. UMNO officials later persuaded him to stay on until late 2003. The next day Mr. Mahathir left for a vacation in Italy. At the airport Wednesday, a crowd cheered "Long Live Mahathir" and waved banners reading "Your leadership is still needed".
However, during a press conference, Mr. Mahathir confirmed that deputy UMNO leader, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, will become head of the party next year. That will make Mr. Abdullah the prime minister, as UMNO dominates Malaysia's coalition government. Mr. Mahathir, prime minister for the past 21 years, said he will remain in the party and does not rule out running for Parliament in the next general elections, due in late 2004. Mr. Mahathir told reporters that his decision to resign was a tough one. "Parting is always a sad thing. I've been with the party for 21 years as prime minister and president of the party and being associated almost my whole three-quarters of my lifetime with the party. Of course I am rather sad that I should have to make a decision. Also I am getting old so people can be emotional," he said.
At the recent UMNO conference, party members had called for early elections to take advantage of Mr. Mahathir's rising popularity.
Since last year's terror attacks in the United States, Mr. Mahathir has taken a tough line on suspected Islamic militants, and that has drawn back many middle-class voters who had drifted away from UMNO. Although Malaysia is about 60 percent Muslim, it has long had a secular government. Many Muslim Malays, as well non-Muslim minority groups have become wary of the rising strength of more hardline Islamic parties.