KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's influential former premier Mahathir Mohamad urged disgruntled ruling party lawmakers not to defect to the opposition to oust the embattled prime minister, but to become independents.
In a de facto masterplan for toppling Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi without losing power, Mahathir said becoming independent lawmakers meant they could avoid opposition figurehead Anwar Ibrahim having a shot at the job.
Abdullah has come under intense pressure to step down since a humiliating setback for his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)-led coalition in March 8 general elections.
A three-party opposition alliance, unofficially led by 60-year-old Anwar, seized control of five states and a third of parliamentary seats.
Abdullah, however, insists he still has a mandate and will only discuss a transition of power to his deputy Najib Razak after party polls in December.
Mahathir urged UMNO lawmakers not to join opposition ranks in order to push Abdullah out but to become independent candidates instead.
"Say 35 of them come out (of UMNO), the government will collapse, the prime minister will have to resign and if Anwar tries to become the PM you don't give your votes to him," Mahathir said.
"If say Najib, if he has the guts, decides to step in and be the candidate for prime ministership, you can then give your 35 votes to him and he becomes the PM, no loss to anyone, except to Abdullah."
Mahathir, an 82-year-old veteran who resigned from UMNO two weeks ago, said he would not rejoin the party until Abdullah stepped down as party president and premier.
He has been campaigning to oust Abdullah, his hand-picked successor, after the coalition's poor electoral results earlier this year.
Anwar, for his part, has said he is confident of attracting enough defecting government lawmakers to topple Abdullah's administration, but Mahathir brushed aside that claim.
"I think it's a pipe dream," he said.
"He has the money but he is not likely to get the support for crossing over. Crossing over is very painful."