New Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gestures during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 10 2018. Picture: REUTERS
New Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gestures during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 10 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Kuala Lumpur — Mahathir Mohamad, 92, was on Thursday sworn in as the world’s oldest elected leader after a stunning election win that swept Malaysia’s establishment from power after more than six decades.

In a huge political upset, former strongman Mahathir’s opposition alliance broke the grip on power of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which had governed Malaysia uninterrupted since its birth as an independent country in 1957.

It capped a dramatic comeback for Mahathir, who previously ruled the country with an iron fist for 22 years and came out of retirement to take on Prime Minister Najib Razak after the leader became embroiled in a massive corruption scandal.

In a ceremony at the national palace steeped in centuries-old Muslim Malay tradition, Mahathir was officially sworn in as prime minister by King Sultan Muhammad.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Mahathir’s comeback has been his reconciliation with jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, his former nemesis, a relationship that has loomed large over the Malaysian political landscape for decades.

Anwar was Mahathir’s heir apparent until the premier sacked him in 1998 over political differences, and he was subsequently jailed on charges of sodomy and abuse of power that were widely seen as trumped-up. Anwar was jailed again during Najib’s rule but he is due out in June — and Mahathir has promised to secure him a royal pardon, allowing him to run for office again and potentially become prime minister.

Najib kept a low profile before surfacing on Thursday morning to tell a press conference that he accepted the people’s will, although he stopped short of conceding defeat.

The opposition’s shock victory triggered euphoria and a sense of relief that a leader who was accused of massive graft and fanning racial tension in the multi-ethnic country was finally on his way out.

The opposition faced an uphill battle at the election due to what critics said were no-holds-barred attempts by Najib to hang on to power. His government was accused of gerrymandering while activists said he hurled cash and gifts at voters. But voters turned out in droves across the country to oust Najib.

His defeat could be just the start of his problems — Mahathir has vowed to bring him to justice over allegations that billions of dollars were looted from sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, which the scandal-hit leader set up and oversaw. He has denied any wrongdoing.

In Mahathir, the opposition found the perfect person to take on Najib. He is a staunch Malay nationalist who could appeal to the country’s biggest ethnic group, and whose years in power were remembered as a prosperous period in the country’s history.