KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysian police want to question former premier Mahathir Mohamad about anti-government comments, a spokeswoman said on Wednesday, in what appeared to be a bid to stifle the veteran leader’s campaign to bring down the prime minister.
Mahathir, still a hugely respected and influential figure, made surprise appearances at a protest in Kuala Lumpur on the weekend, calling for a “people’s power” movement to topple Prime Minister Najib Razak over a financial scandal.
“Tun (Mahathir) made several allegations in his speeches … that warrants police action,” police spokeswoman Asmawati Ahmad said.
Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar would take a statement from Mahathir, she said.
It was not clear if Mahathir would face any charges.
Mahathir, known as a tough prime minister with an authoritarian bent for 22 years until 2003, is on a private trip to Jordan and was not expected back until Sept. 9, an aide said.
“As far as I am aware, he has not been approached by the police yet. We will comply with the police on whatever is needed,” the aide, Sufi Yusoff, told Reuters.
Mahathir, 90, was once Najib’s patron but has become his fiercest critic in recent months after reports of a mysterious transfer of more than $600 million into an account under Najib’s name.
Najib has denied any wrongdoing and says he did not take any money for personal gain but, nevertheless, faces the biggest crisis of his political career.
He has tightened his grip on power through a series of steps to sideline dissenters and muzzle critical media.
Many Malaysians were stunned by Mahathir’s decision to join the protests, organized by anti-corruption activists, in an unprecedented act of defiance of the prime minister.
The two are stalwarts of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party that has led coalition governments since the country’s independence in 1957, and their antagonism has raised fears of a split.
One UMNO leader said Mahathir had “crossed over the line”.
The police questioning of the country’s longest-serving leader would appear to raise the political stakes for both sides.
“If the police called in Mahathir and treated him the wrong way then the political repercussions would be severe,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.
“The calls for Najib to resign will only get stronger.”
Wan said, however, that it was very unlikely the police would file formal charges against Mahathir.
Malaysia’s political upheaval follows a media report in July that said investigators looking into alleged mismanagement at debt-laden state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) had traced a payment of more than $600 million to an account under Najib’s name. Reuters has not been able to verify the media report.
Fighting back, Najib sacked his deputy and other ministers who had publicly questioned him, and the attorney-general who was investigating 1MDB was replaced.
Authorities also suspended two newspapers and blocked access to a website that had reported on 1MDB.
Transparency International said on Wednesday that Malaysia is facing a “corruption crisis”.
“We want to see more progress but that cannot happen while there are unanswered questions about the $700 million that made its way into the Prime Minister’s personal bank account,” Jose Ugaz, chair of the graft watchdog said at the international anti-corruption conference in Kuala Lumpur.
Najib had pulled out of making an appearance at the conference.
Speaking at the rally on Sunday, Mahathir called Najib a corrupt leader and said the people as a whole did not want him.
Authorities declared the rally illegal and police have summoned several protest leaders.
A source close to the government said he expected arrests to be made over the next 24 hours.
Mahathir said in a blog on Tuesday he did not agree with street protests but Najib had blocked every legal method to change the prime minister.