Malaysians have delivered a shock election victory to the opposition alliance, and in the process have ended sixty years of political dominance centred around one party. So why have Malaysians upended the status quo?
Yesterday, voters in Malaysia’s 14th General Election, ended the six decade-long political leadership of a coalition centred on the ethno-nationalist party, UMNO.
But this is not a story of bedraggled outsiders storming the gates of power.
In a deeply ironic twist—that Malaysians are more than aware of—they have set the stage for the re-entry of a former prime minister, the consummate insider in Mahathir Mohamad.
This Southeast Asian country of about 32 million people, that’s often punched above its weight in international matters, has only ever known UMNO and its multi-ethnic coalition Barisan Nasional, having governed this primary producer turned industrialised economy, since independence from British colonial rule in 1957.
While pundits will rightly note the mixed dynamics of local and national issues, personality and policy concerns, and enthusiasm and disenchantment that went into the final results for the federal and state levels of the contest, it would not be too much of a stretch to boil it down to two men.
The battle was between incumbent Najib Razak, son of the second Malaysian Prime Minister, and the 92-year-old Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the nation’s 4th Prime Minister, whose 22 year rule shaped this predominantly Muslim nation in profound ways.
They led their respective coalitions with either the promise of policy continuity and the status quo or democratic institutional reform. Where both sides converged, was a plethora of populist measures aimed at alleviating the rising cost of living - a significant issue for an economy suffering from the middle-income trap..
The end result was the least likely scenario as the contest was played on very uneven terms though it the contest was seen as highly competitive because of the expected swing votes. The question was how much of a swing of the popular vote would translate into electoral success in this first-past-the-post system.
The fall of UMNO and Barisan Nasional, at the hands of some of its former insiders, opens up an opportunity to change the very terms on which governance has been constructed.
Growth-led development, with strong redistributive policies, has underscored the legitimacy of the ‘soft authoritarian’ government, repeatedly returning them to power at each general election.
But it was also a system that relied heavily on patronage, an ecosystem for subsidies for electorally important rural constituencies, and ultimately, corruption.
Dr. Mahathir's prediction
Circulating in the last 24 hours, is an audio recording of Dr. Mahathir’s prediction from twenty years ago where he states that by 2020 UMNO would no longer be in power.
This extraordinary display of self-criticism and self-awareness tinged with regret and atonement marked Dr. Mahathir’s campaign against Najib, after he split from him own party.
Dr. Mahathir’s zealous crusade against his one-time protege, a man he helped make prime minister, seemed at first to be part of an almost pathological tendency to attack his successors as inadequate vehicles for "his" legacy.
Mohamad had removed several of his deputies including the Islamist fire-brand Anwar Ibrahim whom he coopted into government and groomed to be his successor. His next deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, also met an ignominious end. And into that breach Dr. Mahathir pushed Najib Razak, who became the nation’s sixth prime minister..
While Najib tried to fashion himself as a reformer—making government more responsive and modern and enabling the economy to embrace the 21st century—something went awry. Whether it was the web of vested interests in the party he could not circumvent, simple temptation, or the controversial 1MDB fund he once called his brain child - time and deeper investigation will tell what went wrong for Najib.
The fall of Najib, one hopes, will force a re-examination of the sacred cows of Malaysian development and governance.
Anwar Ibrahim, his spurned protege who built the most successful challenge to the status quo, bridging the main ideological divides in Malaysian politics—even while languishing in prison for a good part of the time—has had to watch the events of the last 48 hours from his prison cell.
In 2008 and 2013, Anwar led a coalition that captured and held the most populous, industrialised and urbanised states of the federation. In both these states, the federal opposition, has come in this year with super-majorities.
This despite deft moves by Najib that enticed the Islamic party out of the coalition with promises to support the very divisive implementation of religious punishments in the criminal code.
In a move that might be described as “regime survival”, Najib risked the fine social balance that kept sectarian conflict at bay. The consequence of the decision by the main Islamic party to dissociate itself from the mainstream and choose to play “kingmaker” has yet to be measured.
The reconciliation between the two men, which forged the united front against the outgoing government, was an attempt to heal the deep rift and hurt in our political life, and augurs well for the post-Barisan Nasional dispensation.
The question of succession was stated early on during the formation of the new alliance with Dr. Mahathir assuming the role of Prime Minister, until such time as Anwar is released from jail and secures both a pardon and a seat in Parliament to become the 8th prime minister of Malaysia
One way to read current developments is to recognise that the overall outcome—the capture of federal power—regardless of the reasons behind the myriad ‘revolts’ that took place across the country, has created a point of entry for democratic forces.
Dr. Mahathir might represent a fading generation and their assumptions about politics and society, but he will be remembered as the Trojan Horse who ushered in a new era of democratic politics.
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