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Malaysia’s Longest-Serving Prime Minister Returns to Power Promising a Tide of Change

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Fifteen years after he retired, Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister is back in his old job, vowing to reform the country he says was unraveled by the former ruling party he led for two decades.

At his first press conference as prime minister again on Thursday, Mahathir named revamping the economy and sorting out the country’s finances as his top priorities. He also pledged to fight corruption, as well as review politically motivated charges against dissidents and members of the opposition.

“We are particularly keen to ensure that the constitution is upheld and that the laws of this country are what will guide us through our administration,” he told reporters shortly before midnight local time.

Mahathir was sworn in late on Thursday night as the country’s seventh prime minister. Known as the father of Malaysia’s modernization, as well as an autocrat who kept a tight hold over power, the 92-year-old previously governed the country from 1981-2003, overseeing a period of rapid industrialization and infrastructure building.

After voters delivered an unprecedented rebuke of the incumbent Barisan National coalition at the polls, Mahathir, who defected to unite a fractured opposition, is now presiding over the country’s first transition of power since independence in 1957.

Delays to the swearing-in ceremony, which must be officiated by the king, prompted concern throughout the day that the unseated premier Najib Razak was making a last-ditch attempt to hold on to the government.

Read More: ‘A New Chapter in Malaysia’s History.’ Voters React to Stunning Election Results

During his concession speech on Thursday, a scandal-dogged Najib vowed to respect the will of the people, but cast doubts over Mahathir’s ability to be appointed prime minister. Since no one party had achieved a simple majority — Pakatan Harapan is a four bloc coalition — he claimed it was up to the king, Sultan Muhammad V, to make a decision over who would be best for the people.

Mahathir had called for the king to respect the rule of law and sign-off on the transition by 5 p.m. Despite appearing at the palace in ceremonial dress at the appointed time, Mahathir, trailed by a retinue of anxious supporters, had to wait several hours before the rubber-stamping event.

“This took slightly more time than expected, about six hours more. But all time must come to an end and here we are: I was formally sworn in as prime minister,” Mahathir said at his Thursday night press conference.

Malaysia's the 7th Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad During A Press Conference
The 7th Malaysian Prime Minister and opposition candidate Mahathir Mohamad during a press conference on May 10, 2018 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.Chris Jung—NurPhoto/Getty Images

He invited reporters to ask questions in an orderly fashion. “Don’t forget, I am the dictator,” he joked.

On his immediate to-do list, Mahathir named “the economy and the finances of this country” as his priority, suggesting that the accounts are at present in a “horrid state.”

“To saw we owe 1 trillion ringgit (about $253 billion) is not an exaggeration,” he said, adding that he hopes to recover much of the $4.5 billion allegedly stolen from a state investment fund known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

“We believe we can get most of the 1MDB money back because we know that the money is in America, in Singapore, in Switzerland and probably in Jho Low,” he said, referring to a Malaysian financier linked to the graft-tainted fund.

Najib denied any wrongdoing, but investigators say $1 billion from the fund ended up in his personal bank accounts. He could face criminal proceedings under the new administration, which says it will set up in an inquest into the missing money.

Read More: Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad Speaks to TIME About What Sparked His Political Comeback

Mahathir also pledged to stop “adjusting petrol prices every few seconds,” and to work on rebuilding investor confidence through ending corruption and resurrecting rule of law.

“We also intend to abolish laws which are oppressive and unfair,” he said, specifically naming the Fake News law recently passed by parliament and widely seen as a vehicle to quash reports critical of the government.

During his previously 22 years in power, Mahathir inspired the opposition political movement he now spearheads after he was accused of weakening the judiciary, jailing critics and shuttering newspapers.

Observers have not missed the irony baked into Mahathir’s political encore.

“Mahathir, who dismantled many of the institutions of democracy in Malaysia, turns out to be the savior of democracy,” Bridget Welsh, associate professor of Political Science at John Cabot University, tells TIME.

Mahathir has defended his record, claiming the system predates him and that he has apologized for mistakes made a generation ago.

“We have work to do for the future of our country we should not be harping on our past,” the country’s new nonagenarian leader said on Thursday night.


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Write to Laignee Barron / Langkawi at Laignee.Barron@time.com