PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad defended his government’s record on the anniversary of its election victory Thursday and reiterated that he will hand over power to his successor, Anwar Ibrahim, though he wasn’t clear on when.
Mahathir’s four-party alliance ousted the coalition that has been in power since independence in 1957 amid anger over then-leader Najib Razak’s massive financial scandal and the rising cost of living. But euphoria over the victory has faded and the new government has been accused of backsliding on reform promises in its election manifesto.
Mahathir told foreign journalists there had been hiccups in pushing through some reforms due to insufficient support in parliament for constitutional changes.
“The manifesto is for five years, not for one year, so we are working on that … there are some promises that have been delayed because of legal problems. For example, certain changes we want to make require some changes in the constitution. For that we need a two-thirds majority” in parliament, he said.
Last year, the opposition-controlled senate rejected a bill to repeal a fake news ban rushed through parliament by the previous government ahead of elections. Attempts to abolish capital punishment faltered, and instead courts were given the power to decide whether to impose the death penalty only on some offenses.
The government has also withdrawn plans to ratify a U.N. anti-discrimination treaty and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court after coming under pressure from the majority Muslim opposition.
Mahathir said in a televised address later Friday that some election promises such as abolishing highway tolls also can’t be done yet amid financial constraints following huge debts caused by the multibillion-dollar looting of the 1MDB state investment fund, economic mismanagement and expensive infrastructure projects.
Apart from 1MDB, the government had to spend 24 billion ringgit ($5.8 billion) to bail out land development authority Felda and Muslim pilgrimage fund Tabung Haji, he said. The government can’t call off a massive rail link project involving China due to a requirement for heavy compensation but managed to get a sharp discount, he said.
“The fact remains that the wrongdoings by the … government under Najib are a huge problem that is disrupting the country’s recovery,” he said.
Mahathir said Najib, who is on trial for corruption charges linked to 1MDB, and his followers have sought to portray the current government as failing to protect Malay rights under decades-old affirmative action policies to divert attention from Najib’s misconduct. Najib’s wife, his former deputy and several high-ranking officials also face charges. U.S. investigators say at least $4.5 billion have been stolen from 1MDB and laundered by associates of Najib.
Mahathir said his untested alliance of four parties had managed the country well, ferreting out corruption and implementing much-needed institutional reforms.
Going forward, Mahathir said economic development will be based on the concept of “shared prosperity” for all races to bolster purchasing power and close the wealth gap between them by 2030. Malay Muslims account for about two-thirds of Malaysia’s 32 million people, with large Chinese and Indian minorities.
Earlier Friday, Mahathir said he was unfazed by a drop in his popularity in a recent poll by the independent Merdeka Center that showed his approval rating had dropped to 46% from 71% last year. He said it was normal for such ratings to drop as people have high expectations for his government’s reform plans.
Mahathir, now 93, said he believes he can fix the country’s problems within two years but there’s no fixed period for him to leave.
He stressed he will keep his promise to hand over power, though he didn’t mention Anwar Ibrahim by name at the briefing.
“I said that I will be an interim prime minister, I hold to that,” Mahathir said. “The successor we are thinking of has been with the party for a long time. I think if there are any changes by him, they will not be radical.”
Mahathir was prime minister for 22 years until 2003, and Anwar was a high-flyer in the former ruling coalition who was convicted of homosexual sodomy and corruption after a power struggle in 1998 with Mahathir. He was freed in 2004 and convicted again in 2015 of sodomy, which he said was concocted to destroy his political career.
Due to anger over the 1MDB fiasco, Mahathir returned to politics and he and Anwar put aside their feud to help their four-party alliance win elections last year, with an agreement that Mahathir will hand over power to Anwar. Malaysia’s king freed and pardoned Anwar, 70, shortly after the polls but uncertainties over the timing of the handover rattle some investors who fear it could disrupt the economy.