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Malaysian PM Gives Up Power, Then Reverses Decision - 2002-06-22

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced his resignation from all posts in the leading United Malays National Organization Saturday, only to reverse his decision after being lobbied by senior party members. Mr. Mahathir's shock announcement at the conclusion of his party's annual congress, has thrown Malaysian politics into confusion.

Party delegates, shouting in shock, greeted Prime Minister Mahathir's announcement with disbelief. They mobbed him as he finished a speech at the party's national assembly.

His voice choked with emotion, Mr. Mahathir told delegates he was taking the opportunity to announce his resignation as UMNO president and from all the posts he currently holds in the party.

It was uncertain whether Mr. Mahathir was also referring to the post of prime minister, but traditionally the UMNO president is the prime minister.

Mr. Mahathir said he was also stepping down as chairman of the coalition government, the Barisan National, and all posts in the Barisan National.

Mr. Mahathir, who has been prime minister for 21 years, is Asia's longest serving elected leader.

Other party leaders quickly hustled Mr. Mahathir off the stage after the announcement, and conferred with him. Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi says the party's supreme council unanimously rejected the announcement.

Mr. Abdullah said that after lobbying by the council members, Mr. Mahathir withdrew his resignation. To cheers at the national assembly, the deputy prime minister said Mr. Mahathir agreed to remain in all posts.

But the move by Mr. Mahathir, who holds a tight grip on national politics in Malaysia, raises the question of succession within UMNO. There are no clear successors for the party and the government's top posts.

Mr. Mahathir's popularity faltered during the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s, and after he forced his popular deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, out of office. Mr. Anwar has been convicted and imprisoned on charges of sexual misbehavior, charges his supporters say were trumped up.

Mr. Mahathir has regained popularity since the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. Many Malaysians say they are grateful for his strong leadership and his support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. He is also viewed as progressive on key religious issues within the large Muslim-Malay population.

Just before the three-day national conference opened this week, expectations had been high that Mr. Mahathir would call an early election to capitalize on UMNO's rising support. However, no date for an election was set this week.