May 10th 2018
ELECTIONS in Malaysia are normally predictable. In fact, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and various allies had won all of them since 1955, until this week. Over the years UMNO has resorted to every conceivable trick to remain in power: stirring communal tensions among Malaysia’s ethnic groups, locking up critics, rigging the electoral system in its favour, bribing voters with populist handouts and threatening chaos if it lost. In the run-up to the election on May 9th it did all of that. It was testimony to the awfulness of the government of Najib Razak that the opposition was even in contention. And it is testimony to the good sense of Malaysian voters that the opposition won, convincingly, paving the way for Malaysia’s first ever change of government (see article).
For a country where politics has always been run along communal lines, the shocking upset holds out the prospect of a more meritocratic form of government. For the region, where rulers with authoritarian instincts have been steadily curbing political freedoms, it is a heartening victory for democracy. And for Mr Najib, who was accused by America’s Department of Justice of personally pocketing $681m looted from a Malaysian government agency, it is a welcome comeuppance.
Malaysia is often put forward as a rare example of tolerance and democracy among countries with a Muslim majority. Both claims had been looking shaky as UMNO resorted to ever more unfair tactics, and ever more strident appeals to the country’s Malay Muslim majority, to remain in power. How much this changes depends on the good faith and efficiency of the new government.
Sceptics note that it is led by Mahathir Mohamad, a former five-term UMNO prime minister who pioneered many of the underhand tactics to which Mr Najib resorted in his failed bid to remain in power. Dr Mahathir was also a champion of Malaysia’s odious system of racial preferences, which he expanded to keep Malay voters loyal to UMNO. What is more, Pakatan Harapan, as the victorious coalition is known, resorted to populism to counter UMNO’s election-rigging, promising to roll back an unpopular but necessary goods-and-services tax and to reinstate subsidies on petrol that Mr Najib had scaled back.
The new government’s majority also rests on an unwieldy coalition of other defectors from UMNO and veteran opposition politicians with relatively little experience of government. In particular, there is bad blood between Dr Mahathir, who is 92 years old, and Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister whom Dr Mahathir first treated as a protégé and later had jailed on spurious sodomy charges. Mr Anwar is now the leader of one of Pakatan Harapan’s component parties, and would have been its prime ministerial candidate had Mr Najib not had him jailed again. Although Dr Mahathir and Mr Anwar claim to be reconciled, it is not clear how they will get on after Mr Anwar is released from prison next month.
Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine that UMNO’s loss will not change Malaysia for the better. For one thing, it is in the new lot’s interest to make the electoral system fairer and to promote a freer press. Better yet, the results suggest that centrism has more electoral appeal than both UMNO’s Malay chauvinism and the Islamic zealotry of PAS, an opposition party that declined to join Pakatan Harapan. Many of the new MPs, having experienced various forms of official bias when UMNO was in power, will have a natural desire to make the bureaucracy more impartial. Doing away with preferences for Malays was always going to be a tall order, given the clout of Malay voters. But at the very least Pakatan Harapan is likely to reform some of the handouts, to make them less of a gravy train for UMNO cronies. Its pledge to investigate Mr Najib’s alleged corruption should also help clean up politics.
Perhaps the new government will succumb to infighting and fail to get much done. But its very existence is a potent reminder to Malaysians and their neighbours that governments can and should, from time to time, change peacefully. With luck, Cambodians, Singaporeans, Thais and Vietnamese, among others, will begin to wonder if something similar might one day happen to them.