Mahathir’s surprise: on the Malaysian elections

Mahathir Mohamad’s spectacular victory in Malaysia’s elections has the potential to spur democratic movements across Southeast Asia, where one-party rule and the military’s preeminence are pervasive. Winds of change could be in the offing, with elections looming in a number of countries. A clear majority for the opposition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) in the new federal legislature signals Mr. Mohamad’s resounding comeback. Outgoing Prime Minister Najib Razak’s overall economic track record was not sufficient to salvage the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front), or its principal party, the United Malays National Organisation. Neither did his government’s stringent curbs on media freedoms, last-minute meddling with electoral constituencies and promises of generous handouts do the trick. This is a historic transition, with UNMO ousted from power for the first time. Mr. Mohamad had helped found UNMO, held power between 1981 and 2003, and in 2009 handpicked Mr. Razak for the big post. Now, the 92-year-old challenged the party that was once his, with the single objective of overthrowing his old protégé. Mr. Razak’s alleged involvement in a multi-million-dollar embezzlement scandal in a sovereign wealth fund appears to have turned the popular mood. Investigations in several countries into investments in the fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, dented the country’s reputation as a regional tiger economy. The scandal and Mr. Mohamad’s strong Malay nationalist credentials gave the opposition the momentum it had long sought. Also, he forged an alliance with his arch-rival, Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Alliance of Hope, now in prison.

Mr. Mohamad’s return to the Prime Minister’s office after more than a decade coincides with the recovery of global commodity prices to Malaysia’s advantage. A regional heavyweight in the 1980s and 1990s, he was known for grandstanding on Asian values of collective well-being over the West’s emphasis on individual rights. He may find little need for such sermons on the world stage today, given the West’s diminishing appetite to hold leaderships to account on their human rights record. In any case, Mr. Mohamed has recast himself, and his promise to uphold the rule of law will strike a chord among both his domestic audience and across the ASEAN belt. The region has come to regard lack of democratic accountability as stumbling blocks to consolidating gains from economic integration. It remains to be seen how Mr. Mohamad honours his word to hand over charge to Mr. Ibrahim, whose return to politics is subject to a royal pardon. That would be a statesmanly gesture to cap an epoch-defining victory.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 4:33:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/mahathirs-surprise/article23841136.ece

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