Mahathir Mohamad, former Malaysian prime minister and opposition candidate for Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) attends a news conference after general election, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

On May 9, Malaysia held its 14th general elections. On the eve of the vote, the general consensus was that even though the campaign for free and fair elections was in full force, sitting prime minster Najib Razak would likely gain a third term.

At the end of the day, however, voters were left in a state of surprise and shock. After 61 years in power, ever since the country gained its independence in 1957, Barisan Nasional was out. A new dawn for democracy in Malaysia, one that many had hoped and fought for, but which few expected to arrive just yet, had come.

Yet even though it was not expected, the outcome was not a fluke. Old habits, scandals, and the relentless efforts of civil-society activists and human-rights defenders were key components in the election result. And for many, not just in Malaysia, but also in neighboring countries struggling with democracy, it is these contributing factors that need to be studied well, to be able to extract the lessons learned from the 2018 Malaysian elections.

To begin with, every government needs to change its policies and means of running a country in line with the needs and interests of its people. While many measures were taken – including gerrymandering and cracking down on any form of dissent – by the Najib government to attempt to ensure the outcome of the elections, to some extend the political elite thought it could win the vote through business as usual.

For all purposes the plan, and the resulting election campaign, was to continue to run the country as it had for decades. In spite of serious concerns among large parts of the population, most particularly with the increased cost of living, the government believed it could appease these concerns without any drastic changes.

Additionally, even if a government’s power seems to be unlimited, there is a point where it can push its people too far. The belief of the previous government in its own right to rule was so absolute that it never truly considered that the plethora of scandals, corruption, and mishandling of power could at some point become too much for Malaysians.

The belief of the previous government in its own right to rule was so absolute that it never truly considered that the plethora of scandals, corruption, and mishandling of power could at some point become too much for Malaysians

While there were plenty of attempts to obscure the extensive involvement of the government in many of these events, most notably the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, the blind belief in the inherited right to rule assured that no real measures were taken to absolve the government either, particularly Najib himself.

The same can be said about the blatant abuse of power, when it came to the general crackdown on any dissenting voices and the electoral system in particular. Decades of harassing and imprisoning any critics of the government, especially Anwar Ibrahim, and more recent tools, such as the Anti-Fake News Law, were clearly used to decimate the opposition.

Meanwhile, gerrymandering and disallowing the National Human Rights Commission to monitor the elections were openly implemented to manipulate the elections itself. The openness of all of this seems to give testimony to the confidence the government had in its own victory.

Finally, if you have an opposition of civil-society activists and human-rights defenders that never gives up, eventually they will win. In spite of all the obstacles, disappointments and sacrifices the opposition faced, they never gave up. In particular, the unrelenting campaign of civil-society activists and human-rights defenders meant that with time the cry for change grew.

Most notably, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections or Bersih – a coalition of some of the strongest civil-society organizations in the country – pushed for change for more than 10 years. They built on the experiences of veteran human-rights defenders, and never gave up hope. Not when its leaders were arrested, not when the rallies were met with tear gas and police brutality, and not when protesters themselves were detained. The call for free and fair elections was unwavering.

In time this cry was heard, and support from the population grew. Young people especially seem to have voted in support of transparency and change, dissatisfied with the corruption and scandals of the past governments.

As the government was throwing up barriers to make it harder for people to vote, most notably by holding the elections on a Wednesday, a weekday, the people organized themselves to make sure they could still cast their ballot. People offered seats in their cars online for anyone who needed a ride home after voting. People flying into the country from abroad – particular flight attendants and other airline staff – offered to bring ballots back for those who could not mail their votes back in time. Companies gave their employees a day off so they could go home and vote, eventually forcing the government to declare a public holiday.

The high turnout of voters was testament to the continued belief of people in the elections, in democracy, and that their vote mattered. No previous elections held in Malaysia on a weekday had ever surpassed a voter turnout of 75%. On May 9, an estimated 82% of the electorate made sure their voice was heard.

Just the beginning

But even though May 9 undoubtedly was a historic day for Malaysia, it is only the beginning of what will likely still be a long and difficult process of change. It will be crucial for both the political and civil-society leaders of the country to keep expectations in check, without relenting on the push for change. Toppling leaders is one thing, gaining systemic and structural change is something else altogether.

More so, while many in the country united behind new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan coalition, it will prove much more complicated to keep that same unity now that the common enemy is gone. Once the road to transformation becomes rocky, it will require great leadership to keep the people together.

While initial signs of consultations with civil society, the release of Anwar, and the refusal to let Najib flee the country have been further historic moments, they are mere steps in the long journey ahead for Malaysia. Let us hope it will be a journey with many more highlights and lessons to learn for other countries in the region.

This article was co-written with Sevan Doraisamy, executive director of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM).

Marte Hellema

Marte Hellema is the program manager communication and media at the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), based in Bangkok, Thailand. Formerly she was the regional coordinator Asia Pacific and program manager public outreach at the Global Secretariat of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC).

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