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Opinion

May 25, 2018

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Democratic triumph in Malaysia

On May 9, the Malaysian voters defeated a sitting government and the dominant ruling party in the 14th general elections held in the country. This election was dubbed the ‘mother of all elections’ and produced historic results. The Malays finally handed down a humiliating defeat to one of the longest-serving ruling coalition of the country, and the world, the Barisan Nasional (BN).

At last, a multi-party democracy has been introduced and the dawn of democratic accountability and change has arisen in Malaysia. Very few election experts and surveys had predicted this fate for the ruling party. It was only in the last week of the election that some pollsters clearly predicted the BN’s defeat, as anger against the former ruling party’s corrupt politics increased.

The democratic movement faced continued repression and authoritarian rule for decades but defied all odds to achieve this historic victory. It is strange how the newly elected prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, first played a key role in strengthening this authoritarian rule of the BN and then brought it down by leading an opposition alliance, the Hope Coalition (PH), against it. It is an extraordinary development that will create space for democratic forces. But this is just the beginning and the coalition has still a long way to go.

The BN has only won 79 seats out of a total of 222 seats, whereas the opposition coalition has won an outright majority of 121 seats. Ninety two-year-old Mahathir Mohamad has been sworn in as the prime minister for the second time – 15 years after stepping down from it; he had previously served as the prime minister of Malaysia for 22 years, from 1981 to 2003.

The defeat of former prime minister Najib Razak’s government has been the result of the split that took place within the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), the largest party of the BN coalition. It was the dwindling support and various corruption scandals that led to a split in the UMNO in 2015. This resulted in a section of the UMNO’s leaders, led by Mahathir, joining the PH. The PH rallied against the increasing cost of living, anger against GST and the government’s corruption to garner people’s support.

The opposition alliance won the election on a populist programme as it made several pledges and promises that were popular among the younger generation of political and social activists. The opposition addressed the concerns and problems of the working class, youth, students, the middle class and the rural poor.

In its pre-election manifesto, the PH promised to bring about reforms within the first 100 days. They vowed to review major public projects, abolish GST and road-toll charges, increase the minimum wage, create one million jobs, make education free-of-cost in public institutions of higher learning and reintroduce fuel subsidies. They also promised to abolish draconian laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act, National Security Council Act, University and College Act and the Sedition Act.

The people have now associated huge expectations with the new government and believe that it will make Malaysia a more democratic country. Since its independence in 1957, Malaysia has remained a veiled police state and has crushed every opposition that rose in the country. The draconian laws made by the British during the colonial rule were used to suppress dissent.

Moreover, Mahathir has promised to hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition coalition who was recently released from prison – he was handed down a prison sentence in a politically-motivated case brought against him by the Najib government. After his release, Ibrahim has become eligible to enter politics according to Malaysia’s laws. Mahathir has also promised to investigate and take action against all the wrongdoings and corruption scandals, such as the 1MBD case, which involve misappropriation of billions of dollars during Najib’s regime.

The election also resulted in another opposition party, the PAS (Malaysian Islamic Party) – not a part of the PH coalition – capturing two states, both located in the north east of the country and among the poorest states in Malaysia with rural-agricultural economies. They managed to continuously manipulate religion to gain influence and support of the rural poor by linking them to the social impact of policies of the BN government. But PAS only managed to win 18 seats in parliament and was almost wiped out in other parts of the country that are urban and economically highly industrialised.

This election could also create new conflicts in the UMNO and the BN which can lead to the demise of the BN and the rise of new right-wing parties. The BN and UMNO can use Malay nationalism and more right-wing rhetoric to challenge the new government.

Amazingly, two old foes came together to unite the opposition forces for this election. The love-hate relationship between Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim goes back a long way. Anwar Ibrahim, who was considered a successor to Mahathir, had a falling out with the former, who sacked him from the post of deputy prime minister and jailed him during a power struggle within the UMNO at the time of the Asian financial crisis in 1998. Mahathir has promised to hand over power to Anwar.

After spending around found years in jail, Anwar Ibrahim is ready to take on power and build a multi-party democracy in Malaysia. Most Malaysians want more democratic rights and an end to the neo-liberal economic policies.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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