Victory by 92-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia’s election and the prospect of jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim becoming premier has breathed fresh life into a country long fatigued by corruption and electoral rigging.
More generally, that emphatic win also sounded a rare positive note for Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where democratic values have suffered in many countries from crackdowns on the media, the jailing of opposition leaders, and military interventions.
Ousted prime minister Najib Razak became the first leader of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition it leads, to lose an election since independence from Britain more than six decades ago.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
It was not expected.
Unprecedented gerrymandering, in what Mahathir described as the “dirtiest election” in Malaysian history, underpinned those expectations alongside race-based policies which favor Malays over other ethnic groups and support for hardline Muslims at the expense of minority groups.
But the depth of public anger over Najib’s administration and allegations of gross corruption had voters turning out in droves and backing the Mahathir-Anwar combination.
Of Mahathir’s first appointments to a much smaller cabinet than his predecessor, is Lim Guan Eng as finance minister. Lim, a former banker, chartered accountant, and former chief minister of Penang, has earned a reputation as ethical, principled and upright.
He will be busy.
Probes by half-a-dozen countries continue into the state-owned investment fund One Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), established by Najib, and its missing billions.
In the United States, the Department of Justice has filed lawsuits to seize more than $1.7 billion in assets believed to have been stolen from 1MDB in an example of what U.S. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions described as the worst form of kleptocracy.
French investigations into Malaysia’s purchase of two submarines through Najib and payment of bribes are ongoing, including the murder of a Mongolian model who worked as a translator on the deal.
“We are not seeking revenge. What we want is to restore the rule of law. If anybody breaks the law they will be brought before the court to be tried,” Mahathir said.
Heads in the bureaucracy that supported Najib will be on the line. Among them is Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali who cleared Najib of any wrongdoing at 1MDB. He has been dismissed and will be investigated for corruption.
That will also enable 1MDB investigations to be reopened at home and perhaps a probe into the financial dealings of Najib’s wife, the dreadfully unpopular Rosmah Mansor.
Najib and Rosmah have been ordered to remain in the country.
Also in the firing line is Musa Aman, chief minister for Sabah, whose brother Anifah served in Najib’s cabinet as foreign minister. Counting irregularities at this election in Sabah and Musa’s business dealings with Rosmah could also come under the spotlight.
Other questions remain. For instance, how did Taib Mahmud, chief minister of neighboring Sarawak for more than three decades amass a family fortune valued by one Swiss-based fund at more than $20 billion?
Corruption aside, other factors were behind the win too.
Issues like taxes and dwindling standards of living had ethnic Chinese and Indian voters deserting BN, delivering Mahathir’s four-party Pakatan Harapan alliance 121 seats in the 222-member parliament. BN won just 79 seats.
“Malaysian voters bucked a regional trend of increased repression by upsetting a sitting government that obviously got too comfortable in tolerating corruption and abusing the rights of those who objected,” said Phil Robertson, spokesman for New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
“The challenge to the leaders of the new government is ensuring an end to the arbitrary application of vague and abusive laws, and ensuring that “rule of law” respects human rights in the future.”
Mahathir, who led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, quit UMNO and re-entered politics last year after Najib ignored calls to stand down and allow independent investigators to do their job at 1MDB, free of political interference.
He promised the new government would work towards obtaining a royal pardon for Anwar, who is due to be released from his five-year prison sentence this week, enabling him to begin the process of entering parliament.
It was about as big a turnaround in politics as one can get.
After all, it was Mahathir who ended Anwar’s political career at UMNO, sacking him as deputy at the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1998. He was jailed for the first time and beaten severely.
Anwar was jailed again under Najib — after he won the popular vote in 2013 – on charges of sodomy which his supporters say were politically motivated.
Mahathir apologized to Anwar, through his daughter Nurul Izzah, for his role in Anwar’s initial downfall, before stepping back into the political ring with Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah who is now Malaysia’s first female deputy prime minister.
The women in Anwar’s life proved a potent force. Both won at the polls and were pivotal in attracting shares of the popular vote. Nurul has been touted as a future prime minister.
As the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) noted, their victory was remarkable on many fronts.
“It was a repudiation of Prime Minister Najib’s racial and religious scaremongering and a vote in favor of a body politic not divided along racial lines,” CSIS authors Amy Searight and Brian Harding, wrote in a commentary.
“It was a call for clean government over graft with patronage. And it was a demonstration that the ballot box can deliver change, even when a prime minister does everything in his power to stack the deck.”
Najib’s drubbing was a surprise. But reports that he allegedly offered MPs $6 million to switch sides, perhaps, were not, highlighting Mahathir’s promise to end the ‘cash is king’ style of politics that defined the Najib years on a breathtaking scale.
Money in politics is nothing new, and it remains an issue across Southeast Asia where democracies are also strained by increased bitterness, a refusal by political parties to accept defeat, and entrenched powers out to ensure that nothing changes.
Keith Loveard, a risk consultant with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting, told The Diplomat that the Malaysian election had become a focal point, adding “regrettably, the neighborhood is one in which the politics of bitterness is becoming the standard template.”
“Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, are increasingly subject to demagogic rule and Indonesia, to the surprise of many, is the single stand-out for something approaching Western parliamentary democracy,” he added.
Historic elections in Myanmar have failed to reign in the military, the junta in Thailand has repeatedly broken promises to return the country to a democracy, and Singapore has had same party rule for more than 60 years.
In Cambodia, the courts have dissolved the main opposition party, ensuring victory for long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen at elections on July 29. And the jailing of journalists, activists, and opposition leaders around the region has been well-documented.
Under Najib, Malaysia was on a similar path. Under Anwar, that could change. If it does, it would restore faith in Malaysia’s political system and provide some much-needed hope elsewhere for the voices that are going unheard at the ballot box.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt.