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MAHATHIR HIMSELF SEEMS TO be aware of the groundswell of discontent. In recent meetings with grassroots party leaders, he has emphasized that he probably will not be around for too long. "He talked as if he had a date in mind," says one UMNO leader who has attended such chat sessions. "I heard him say, one to two years." During a Nov. 10 interview with CNN International, Mahathir said: "I would like to step down as soon as possible, but I have a responsibility to make sure that my successor can carry on where I left off."

That "responsibility," critics charge, is just an excuse to extend his rule; after all, Mahathir has not even named a successor. "The retirement story is another trick," says Anwar's political secretary Mohamed Ezam Noor, who is now helping organize the reformasi movement from Indonesia. "Remember, [former Indonesian president] Suharto talked about retirement for 10 years." A former deputy minister once aligned with Mahathir is equally blunt: "I don't believe he will leave office voluntarily."

Those close to Mahathir, however, insist the PM is serious about stepping down, and observers say the most likely scenario is that UMNO polls in May will elect a new deputy leader. Mahathir then works with his new deputy until early 2000, when he calls elections. He does not contest his parliamentary seat, thereby retiring from politics. "For UMNO, this is the best option," says a middle-level leader. "We've had enough of the Mahathir-Anwar battle. We need to move on."

This retirement strategy, however, could backfire. Many political pundits say that with Mahathir, merely making his supporters believe that he is leaving might accelerate the process, because they will start to desert him in the knowledge that he will no longer be around to protect them. "I think as soon as a successor is in place next May, the PM will be under a lot of pressure to give him more responsibilities and start easing himself out of office," says one insider.

There is also the matter of Mahathir's health. The PM, who turns 73 next month, had quadruple heart bypass surgery nine years ago and suffers from a blood-pressure problem. Most times, he appears just fine. But on Nov. 9, he did not show up at his office, canceled an interview and did not attend a function to launch the first Malaysian-made commercial auto engine. During the CNN session, he looked gaunt and coughed often.

At any rate, the race is on to become Mahathir's successor. The key contestants are Education Minister Najib Tun Razak, Foreign Minister Abdullah Badawi and onetime finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. Pundits say the candidate with the best chance would be one who comes across as the most un-Mahathir, not only because of the disaffection in the rank-and-file but also because Anwar still commands some support within the party. "These Anwar supporters will be the swing voters in the next party elections," says an UMNO leader from Perak. "Whomever they back will get a head start."

According to Ezam, UMNO is full of such closet Anwar sympathizers. "I get calls from MPs, state assemblymen, division leaders every day," he claims. "Some of these people are quoted in Malaysian newspapers as saying they back Mahathir 100%, yet at night they call me to assure me of their support for reformasi and Anwar."

Does this mean that Anwar could one day return to UMNO? Says a retired senior UMNO leader: "It's irrelevant whether Anwar will have a political life after the trial. What's relevant is whether the clamor for reforms gains momentum, with or without Mahathir, with or without Anwar." Adds a former civil servant who is now a business executive: "Whatever happens to Mahathir or Anwar, we Malaysians must wake up and realize that the world has changed." Or perhaps risk being left behind.

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