KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - His popularity at home and reputation abroad have rarely been higher, but Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivered yesterday his second shock within a week by announcing that he is voluntarily stepping down.
Mahathir, who has been in power since 1981 and who is not facing the kind of street demonstrations that have brought other Asian leaders down in recent years, said through a spokesman that he would leave office on Oct. 25, 2003.
"The decision is final," Information Minister Khalil Yaakob said during a television news conference.
Yesterday's announcement ends a short drama that began on Saturday, when Mahathir concluded a two-hour speech at a party conference by announcing that he planned to resign. It seemed to catch everyone in this country of 21 million by surprise, including his closest political associates, foreign diplomats, and even his wife, who seemed to gasp when she heard the words.
Pandemonium erupted in the hall, amid a chorus of anguished cries of disbelief from party loyalists. In a hastily called closed-door meeting, leaders of the party, the United Malays National Organization, pleaded with him to retract his statement, which he did.
But Mahathir remained determined. During a Sunday morning meeting at the prime minister's residence, party officials and Cabinet ministers managed to persuade him only to adopt a prolonged transition period.
Then the man who has taken care of everything here for 21 years left on vacation for Italy, leaving his deputies to clean up.
Mahathir, 76, has been a constant irritant to the White House, entertaining Cuban President Fidel Castro as recently as last year, and calling for an end to sanctions against Iraq. He has railed against the West, but recently began a move to have English more widely taught in Malaysian schools, a necessity if Malaysia is to develop, he said.
Under Mahathir, Malaysia has been one of the most stable countries in Asia. There have been no coups or blood baths among the country's ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians.
It is a modern, moderate Islamic state - young Muslim women wear scarves, tight jeans and platform shoes - one that in the post-Sept. 11 environment Washington would like to see copied elsewhere.
Since Sept. 11, Washington has also found Mahathir not so unpalatable after all. He condemned the terror attacks, and has provided the United States with intelligence on the activities of Islamic radicals here, including some who were involved in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
In April, Mahathir got something that had eluded him during his entire time in office - an invitation to the White House, the first state visit for a Malaysian leader.
Mahathir's hand-picked successor, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is not expected to bring about any radical change in Malaysia's policies, at least not in the short term.
"Even though the trigger was mysterious," said a diplomat referring to the events of the past three days, "the transition looks orderly."