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Malaysia's PM Mahathir Sets Date for Stepping Down - 2003-09-28


Malaysia's prime minister has confirmed he will be stepping down on October 31, after more than two decades in office. Analysts expect that Mahathir Mohamad will remain an influential figure within the governing United Malays National Organization.

Mahathir Mohamad confirmed he would be stepping aside as Malaysia's prime minister in a newspaper interview published Sunday, saying his final day at work will be October 31.

Mr. Mahathir, a major influence over regional politics over 22 years in power, told the New Straits Times he had been prime minister for too long and it was now time to pass the job on to his successor.

Last year, the 77-year-old prime minister announced that deputy leader Abdullah Ahmad Badawi would take over as the country's leader and head of the governing United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

Since then, Mr. Badawi has been taking a higher public profile. He will become prime minister shortly after Malaysia plays host to the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference next month.

Mr. Mahathir says while he will support UMNO in national elections due in 2004, he will not seek a significant role within the coalition organization.

Singapore's former prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew - who stepped down in 1990 - continues to have a key role in the government as a senior minister.

Professor Joseph Liow, a senior fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, said he expects the Malaysian leader to remain a prominent figure in his country's politics. "I'm sure that he would still maintain a certain degree of influence, not just in UMNO, but in the general political sphere in Malaysia. To what extent I'm not too sure," said Mr. Liow. "It's difficult to imagine that a man who has been in power for over two decades to just totally switch off and ride into the sunset as he would like us to believe."

Professor Liow said it is unlikely Mr. Mahathir will act to undermine Mr. Badawi or be seen as a threat to his successor.

During his period in power, Mr. Mahathir has reshaped an economy that was dependent on tin and rubber exports into one driven by technology and industry.

But he has been accused by international human rights groups of acting ruthlessly against political opponents, using Malaysia's tough internal security laws to quiet dissent.