KUALA LUMPUR                   -            Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad unexpectedly resigned as prime minister on Monday, leaving the Southeast Asian nation in political turmoil, but he agreed to a request from the country’s king to stay on as interim premier until a successor is named.

The resignation of Mahathir, 94, broke apart a coalition with old rival Anwar Ibrahim, 72, that had scored a surprise election victory in 2018 and was not part of a pre-election promise that Mahathir would one day cede power to Anwar.

But it immediately drew calls from some quarters for the world’s oldest government leader to return.

The decision, which Mahathir did not explain, followed surprise talks at the weekend between members of his coalition and the opposition on forming a new government.

The talks occurred amid simmering differences between Mahathir and Anwar over delays to the planned power transfer, presenting some anti-Anwar politicians a window to try and seek a new coalition.

The king accepted Mahathir’s resignation after meeting Mahathir, though he agreed to remain in his post in a caretaker capacity pending the appointment of a successor, Chief Secretary Mohd Zuki Ali said in a statement.

“However, His Highness has given his assent to appoint Mahathir Mohamad as interim prime minister, while waiting for the appointment of the new prime minister. Hence until then, (Mahathir) will manage the country’s affairs until a new prime minister and cabinet are appointed,” Mohd Zuki said.

On Mahathir’s advice, the king had also assented to dissolving his cabinet, Mohd Zuki said later.

There is no time frame for how long someone can stay on as interim leader, and that person can also appoint cabinet ministers, news portal The Malaysian Insight quoted Attorney General Tommy Thomas as saying.

Anwar and people close to Mahathir said he had quit after accusations that he would form some sort of partnership with opposition parties he defeated less than two years ago on an anti-corruption platform.

“He thought that he shouldn’t be treated in that manner, to associate him in working with those we believe are blatantly corrupt,” Anwar told reporters after meeting Mahathir on Monday morning. “He made it very clear that in no way would he work with those associated with the previous regime.”

But it is unclear whether the resignation marks the end of the road for Mahathir as a full-term premier, since at least three parties in his coalition called for him to stay on in office. Some in the opposition have also agreed to support him.

“The field is wide open for him,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of pollster Merdeka. “If he considers coming back as PM, he has the freedom to choose his partners or who he would like to be part of his cabinet.”