Voters in Malaysia have elected a new federal government for the first time in history. Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance, led by ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, has claimed a stunning victory, bringing an end to the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s uninterrupted 61-year rule.
Contrary to widely cited expert projections predicting a slim victory for BN, the four-party opposition Harapan pact has handed the long-ruling coalition a devastating defeat, moving Malaysian politics into unchartered territory and raising questions about the fate of repudiated scandal-plagued premier Najib Razak.
Official results trickled in slowly throughout Wednesday evening showing Harapan making stronger-than-expected inroads in battleground state Johor, long regarded as a fortress of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the now-defeated party Mahathir previously led during his 22-year tenure as Malaysia’s fourth prime minister.
Hours later, in a stunning 3:00 am press conference declaring Harapan’s victory with a simple parliamentary majority, reality set in that Mahathir would soon be sworn in as Malaysia’s seventh prime minister.
Earlier in the night, Mahathir alleged that official tallies were being delayed by a partisan Election Commission once it became clear that Harapan was on track to secure a victory. Journalists at BN’s headquarters reported scenes of quiet and were kept waiting late into the night for Najib’s scheduled press conference, which was ultimately called off.
Top BN leaders were seen convening at Najib’s private residence in Kuala Lumpur in the wee hours of May 10. Khairy Jamaluddin, the BN’s youth chief, told reporters as he exited the building that the ousted premier would “accept the will of the people” and hold a press conference in the morning, adding that it had been a “long night.”
“We are not seeking revenge,” Mahathir said when asked by reporters if charges would be brought against Najib. “What we want to do is to restore the rule of law. If anybody breaks the law they’ll be brought before the court.”
On the campaign trail, Mahathir had launched relentless barbs against Najib, calling him a “thief” over for his alleged role in a multi-billion-dollar graft scandal at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment arm he created and oversaw that is now at the center of ongoing international embezzlement probes.
Najib had interfered into local investigations into the 1MDB corruption scandal, ousting critics and appointing an attorney general that cleared him of misconduct. Mahathir repeatedly pledged that an independent investigation into dealings at the state fund would be opened under a Harapan government. Najib has consistently denied wrongdoing.
Malaysia is now at a historic crossroads and observers are grappling to project what will happen next. Harapan’s victory has overthrown BN in states such as Negeri Sembilan, Johor, Kedah and Malacca, while retaining opposition strongholds Penang and Selangor, results widely seen by experts, pundits and observers as unassailable.
Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), an Islamist opposition party which ran as a third force independent of BN and Harapan, also defied expert projections that foresaw a near-wipeout defeat for the party. Instead, it retained control of its stronghold in Kelantan, where it has ruled for nearly three decades, and pried Terengganu away from BN control.
“Malaysia’s opposition pulled off this sweeping electoral victory despite the ruling party’s control over newspapers and TV, despite decades of gerrymandering,” wrote journalist Thomas Fuller in a tweet. “Opinion polls predicted a ruling party victory. It’s a remarkable upset, a case study for political scientists.”
Harapan, an unlikely alliance of secular Chinese politicians, pro-democracy reformers, moderate Islamists and ex-UMNO supporters, must now contend with the complex task of a forming a federal government to lead a nation that hasn’t seen a transfer of power since independence in 1957.
Derided by BN as “coalition of enemies” brought together by a marriage of convenience, the true durability of the pact will now be tested as a Cabinet is appointed and a new government takes shape, a task that some observers contend Harapan is ill-prepared. Mahathir has yet to unveil a shadow Cabinet.
“I have to manage four presidents of four different parties,” Mahathir told reporters following his declaration of victory. “It’s going to be a headache.”
Though despite the long and contentious history between Harapan’s leaders, some of whom were once critics that were jailed during Mahathir’s strongman premiership, the opposition’s strategic gamble to welcome Mahathir into the fold as their leader has proved to be a spectacular success.
Upset by corruption, rising authoritarianism and ballooning living costs made worse by an unpopular goods and service (GST) tax, Malaysians – the major ethnic group in the peninsula and also those in eastern states Sabah and Sarawak long regarded as BN fail-safes – have handed Harapan a clear and decisive vote of confidence.
Mahathir, 92, is now expected to function as a placeholder for a man he once sacked: his former deputy premier, Anwar Ibrahim. Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), an Anwar-led party formed in the wake of the 1998 Reformasi movement, has now effectively come to power through the efforts of the man it was established to oppose.
Anwar, now serving a five-year jail term on what is widely seen as a politically motivated sodomy conviction, is set to be released next month. Before becoming prime minister, he must obtain a royal pardon that would allow him to participate in politics and clinch victory in an election, presumably a calculated by-election that would be called at a future date.
Mahathir has said he would seek a pardon for Anwar. Though the opposition coalition says Mahathir would remain in office for a maximum of two years before Anwar takes the helm, the newly-elected premier gave a more flexible timetable in a recent interview, saying he could rule for up to three years.
The exact timeframe for such a hypothetical transition remains unclear. Some observers who are critical of the nonagenarian’s past authoritarian traits remain skeptical, however, questioning whether Mahathir intends to be as accommodating as he promised on the campaign trail.
Once sworn in, Malaysia’s new premier will be the world’s oldest-serving leader.
He has pledged to set term limits for the post of prime minister and reduce its power while promising to scrap the GST within his first 100 days. Investors who largely bet on a Najib victory are likely to be ruffled by the historic upset.
Bloomberg reported iShares MSCI Malaysia ETF based on the nation’s stocks dropped by some 2.6% since news broke of the poll results.
As Malaysia marks the start of a new era, the decisive repudiation of the long-ruling BN coalition is a new normal with which investors and foreign governments must now come to terms.