Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's unbridled criticism of his successor may have backfired, with senior officials, cabinet ministers and ordinary Malaysians rallying behind Abdullah Badawi.
After months of griping, Dr Mahathir opened up on Mr Abdullah on Wednesday, saying he regretted picking the soft-spoken, 67-year-old Islamic scholar as his successor. He charged that Mr Abdullah betrayed his trust, did not deliver on promises and was ungrateful.
'Dr Mahathir's ill-mannered and undisguised criticism is completely unacceptable,' said political scientist Abdul Razak Baginda, the executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre. 'People are shocked at the way he attacked Mr Abdullah, his own successor,' he said.
'Dr Mahathir might have picked Abdullah as his successor, but it is the people who voted to give him a huge mandate in 2004. Dr Mahathir should respect that mandate and stop attacking Abdullah, who has his own priorities. He should keep his hands off domestic politics. There is no need to be ungrateful. Abdullah has shown great respect for Dr Mahathir and that is enough.'
The government-controlled media usually buries Dr Mahathir's criticism, but this time the subject hit the front pages.
Many government ministers, once considered Mahathir loyalists, spoke up against the former leader for his criticism of Mr Abdullah. Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, on an official visit to India, stood behind Mr Abdullah, offering support and sympathy. 'I am appealing to all the party members and all the rakyat [people] to give full support to the PM,' he said.
'I did not suspect the rift was this deep,' said businessman Bala Singham, 51.
'This is open war. Where is this leading to? He is retired, he should not interfere.'
Political analyst James Wong said Dr Mahathir was angry Mr Abdullah had reversed many of his policies. 'It hurts Dr Mahathir very much that Abdullah is tampering with his grand vision for Malaysia,' said Mr Wong, chief analyst with Malaysiakini, an independent news website. 'He feels betrayed.'
Mr Abdullah and Dr Mahathir met last month in Tokyo at a development conference.
'The meeting failed to resolve their differences and this big fallout is the result,' Mr Wong said.
At several forums this year, Dr Mahathir has criticised Mr Abdullah for abandoning a bridge project connecting Malaysia with Singapore, failing to support Proton, the national carmaker, and for the sale of an Italian motorcycle maker that was saddled with M$500 million ($1 billion) in debts, for just US$1.
But Dr Mahathir denies he wants Mr Abdullah removed. 'I am not after his head; I speak up only against bad policies,' he told a forum last month.
As a matter of policy, Mr Abdullah does not respond to Dr Mahathir's criticism. But he is being urged to stand up for himself.
'Mr Abdullah should make a statement in parliament to clear his name and uphold the integrity of his government,' opposition lawmaker S. Kulasegaran said.
'He cannot keep quiet after this.'