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Malaysia’s first new government in six decades revels in a shocking victory

Malaysia’s incoming prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, waves a letter to the king. EPA/Ahmad Yusni

In an shocking upset, the coalition that has ruled Malaysia for all 61 years since independence, Barisan Nasional (BN), has lost power. It was ousted by a coalition of four parties, Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), whose combined seats amounted to a parliamentary majority. Its candidate for prime minister, 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, has now been sworn in. A former BN prime minister of 22 years, he now becomes the world’s oldest sitting elected leader.

This is a galling defeat for BN, which was widely expected to win yet again. In the last vote in 2013, it retained enough seats to govern even though it lost the popular vote. In this election, it was expected to retain a majority, or at least be able to work together with the third party of significance, the Malaysian Islamic Party.

BN also usually benefits from the highly racialised nature of Malaysian politics. Its largest member party, The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has previously retained overwhelming ethnic Malay support. By contrast, the Democratic Action Party, part of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, is widely distrusted among Malays partly because of its image as a party of the ethnic Chinese population.

During the campaign, BN did all it could to put obstacles in Pakatan Harapan’s path. It was widely criticised for gerrymandering constituency boundaries, and democratic freedoms were undermined by an anti-fake news law and various sedition laws. Mahathir’s face was even gouged out of campaign billboards.

BN expected to benefit from an anticipated low turnout, and all the stops were pulled out to make voting harder. The vote was held on a Wednesday rather than a weekend; polling centres closed at 5pm, even though people were still waiting to vote. The election was called a full month before polling day, but nominations were only confirmed on April 28, meaning many Malaysians living abroad either didn’t receive their postal ballots in time or weren’t given sufficient notice to plan a trip home.

In the end, BN still fell short of its usual majority. But even after the results came in, there were concerns that it would obstruct the transfer of power. The electoral commission was much slower than usual to confirm the counts, and there were also concerns that the Agong (king) would not swear in Mahathir on the day. BN delayed its press conference until the morning after the results, with some questioning whether it was attempting to thwart Pakatan Harapan by persuading opposition partners in the state of Sabah to jump ship.

Caught out

Pakatan Harapan had problems of its own. While it has a well-oiled electioneering machine in its traditional urban strongholds, things were much harder in rural constituencies. I myself saw on the ground its candidates were badly under-resourced compared to their BN counterparts.

And yet, Pakatan Harapan netted a comfortable majority. It captured seats outside its usual territory, taking Johor (the birthplace of UMNO) and making gains in both Negeri Sembilan and Sarawak, both traditionally BN turf. Sabah’s Heritage Party also won seats in Sabah, further eroding BN’s tally. And all the while, Pakatan Harapan maintained its dominance in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. It even toppled some of BN’s most senior figures, including the presidents of the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress.

A supporter of Mahathir Mohamad, out and proud. EPA/Fazry Ismail

Some in Malaysia are wondering whether BN lost in a “Malay Tsunami”, with rural Malays gravitating towards Pakatan Harapan thanks to Mahathir’s legacy as prime minister, which made him a credible alternative to the incumbent, Najib Razak. But along with competition for racial interests, what did for BN were the various scandals that have engulfed it, and Najib in particular. His family members have also been criticised for their luxurious lifestyle, a serious liability in a country where many still live on the poverty line.

All in all, this is a remarkable moment for Malaysia. But it’s only the beginning.

Onward and upward?

So far, many of the signs are good. The press already seems more willing to be openly critical, and former injustices are apparently going to be reversed. Mahathir is seeking a pardon for Anwar Ibrahaim, an opposition leader who was imprisoned for dubious charges of sodomy. His wife will serve as deputy prime minister, and his daughter is now a member of parliament. There are hopes for wide reaching reformation.

The fall of BN coincides with rising concerns over standards of living, which seemed to dominate peoples’ concerns at the ballot box. BN made some unpopular moves in recent years, implementing a hated goods and services tax and ending fuel subsidies. Pakatan Harapan has promised to reverse both in wide programme of reforms, which many Malays hope could raise much of the population out of near-poverty. Pakatan Harapan focused on good governance during the campaign, and pointed to its successes running the state of Penang.

But since this is the first time in modern Malaysian history that an opposition has formed a national government, the incomers need to find new ways to do things. And that won’t be easy. Pakatan Harapan is to some degree an alliance of convenience, its parties held together mainly by anti-BN and anti-Najib sentiments. The coalition is under the pressure of high expectations, and the reforms it’s proposed won’t be easy to pass. Its victory is also somewhat tainted by the fact that Mahathir himself served as a BN prime minister for 22 years, making him a part of the old guard.

Nonetheless, the moment is to be savoured. Malaysia might now be in for some dramatic changes – and that’s exactly what the majority of Malaysians are hoping for.

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