KUALA LUMPUR - Former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad has quit the ruling Malay party, saying Monday it has been hijacked by embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak to protect his own interests.
Najib has come under pressure to resign after documents leaked last July showed more than $700 million was channeled into his private bank accounts. The attorney general decided last month not to prosecute Najib, saying most of the money was a personal donation from Saudi Arabia's royal family.
Mahathir said he decided to quit the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, because it was now “a party dedicated to supporting Najib, protecting Najib and upholding whatever he does, including some of the wrong things he has done.”
“I feel embarrassed that I am associated with a party that is seen as supporting corruption,” he told a news conference. “I am very much ashamed of all that is happening, I decided that I cannot be a party to all these things, so the least I can to do is leave the party.”
Mahathir was prime minister for 22 years before stepping down in 2003. He remains an influential political figure and has led calls for Najib to resign.
However, his departure from the ruling party is unlikely to have a major impact on Najib, who continues to enjoy the support of senior UMNO leaders. Najib has retained their backing because of the patronage he has been handing out, something which Mahathir also did to ensure his longevity in politics.
This is the second time Mahathir has left UMNO, the linchpin of the ruling coalition that has been in power since independence from Britain in 1957. He quit in 2008 to protest his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and rejoined the party in 2009 after Najib came into power.
Mahathir said a prime minister should never have so much money, no matter where it came from. He said the announcement that it came from the Saudi royal family was “illogical” as there were no documents or banking evidence to show the trail.
He said Najib has been unable to quash accusations that the money came from state investment fund 1MDB, which Najib started and has accumulated more than 42 billion ringgit ($10 billion) in debts in six years. Both Najib and 1MDB have denied the allegation.
Mahathir said Najib replaced the former attorney-general who had been investigating him with a loyalist, who last month ordered the anti-corruption agency to close its investigation of Najib. The agency is appealing the decision.
“The focus of UMNO is on how to keep Najib as prime minister, how to keep him in power,” Mahathir said. “UMNO as a political party no longer exists. The party has been hijacked by Najib and turned into Najib's party.”
Communications Minister Salleh Said Keruak, a senior UMNO leader, said the party has been through many crises.
“But UMNO survived and life went on. And UMNO will survive this one as well. In the long run it is better for everyone concerned that Dr. Mahathir leaves the party,” he wrote on his blog.