Malaysia’s Longest-Serving Prime Minister Returns to Power Promising a Tide of Change

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Fifteen years after he retired, Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister is back in his old job, vowing to reform the country he says was unraveled by the former ruling party he led for two decades.

At his first press conference as prime minister again on Thursday, Mahathir named revamping the economy and sorting out the country’s finances as his top priorities. He also pledged to fight corruption, as well as review politically motivated charges against dissidents and members of the opposition.

“We are particularly keen to ensure that the constitution is upheld and that the laws of this country are what will guide us through our administration,” he told reporters shortly before midnight local time.

Mahathir was sworn in late on Thursday night as the country’s seventh prime minister. Known as the father of Malaysia’s modernization, as well as an autocrat who kept a tight hold over power, the 92-year-old previously governed the country from 1981-2003, overseeing a period of rapid industrialization and infrastructure building.

After voters delivered an unprecedented rebuke of the incumbent Barisan National coalition at the polls, Mahathir, who defected to unite a fractured opposition, is now presiding over the country’s first transition of power since independence in 1957.

Delays to the swearing-in ceremony, which must be officiated by the king, prompted concern throughout the day that the unseated premier Najib Razak was making a last-ditch attempt to hold on to the government.

During his concession speech on Thursday, a scandal-dogged Najib vowed to respect the will of the people, but cast doubts over Mahathir’s ability to be appointed prime minister. Since no one party had achieved a simple majority — Pakatan Harapan is a four bloc coalition — he claimed it was up to the king, Sultan Muhammad V, to make a decision over who would be best for the people.

Mahathir had called for the king to respect the rule of law and sign-off on the transition by 5 p.m. Despite appearing at the palace in ceremonial dress at the appointed time, Mahathir, trailed by a retinue of anxious supporters, had to wait several hours before the rubber-stamping event.

“This took slightly more time than expected, about six hours more. But all time must come to an end and here we are: I was formally sworn in as prime minister,” Mahathir said at his Thursday night press conference.

He invited reporters to ask questions in an orderly fashion. “Don’t forget, I am the dictator,” he joked.