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Malaysia's PM Leaves for Unscheduled Holiday

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has left for an unscheduled holiday, one day after he announced and then retracted his decision to quit his party and government. It appears the country is set to face a period of uncertainty.

Mr. Mahathir departed Sunday for a 10 day overseas vacation, leaving behind a number of unanswered questions about the country's political future.

The prime minister closed the annual party congress of his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) Saturday with a surprise announcement. He tearfully told members he would resign all posts in UMNO and his ruling National Front coalition, but he did not say why.

The prime minister, who is Asia's longest serving leader with 21 years in office, had been expected, instead, to call early elections to capitalize on his coalition's current popularity.

After a firestorm of public and private protests at the congress, Malaysia's deputy prime minister appeared an hour later to say Mr. Mahathir had been persuaded to stay on.

Malaysia's political uncertainties were compounded Sunday by the death of Fadzil Noor, who is leader of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

Malaysia's media were rife with speculation about the future of both the ruling and opposition parties.

Shamul Akmar, assistant political editor with the New Straits Times newspaper in Kuala Lumpur, says he thinks it is just a matter of time before Prime Minister Mahathir resigns. "I think the sentiment is the announcement by his deputy [Abdullah Badawi] that he agreed to retract his resignation was just a move to allay the outpouring or strong reaction from the delegates in the hall and the strong reaction from most parts of the country," he said.

Some political analysts suggest, UMNO needs to buy time to put forward a strong successor.

Mr. Mahathir has been in the strongest political position since his party lost some ground to PAS in the 1999 elections. Malaysians seem to approve of Mr. Mahathir's tough stand against terrorism and Islamic militancy following last year's terrorist attacks on the United States.

And UMNO appeared to be getting renewed support from Malaysia's largely moderate Muslim population in the face of a push by the PAS opposition to introduce strict Islamic laws.