KUALA LUMPUR: Hope for lasting change in Malaysia after the opposition’s historic election win may hinge on whether the triumphant 92-year-old autocrat-turned-progressive Mahathir Mohamad has truly changed his ways and possesses the vigour and clout to heal national divisions.
The wily former authoritarian ruler, expected to become prime minister once again, proved the difference in finally enabling a rising opposition movement to break Umno’s six-decade hammer-lock on power.
The Pakatan Harapan coalition’s victory is Malaysia’s first real government change since independence from Britain in 1957 and will fuel public aspirations for wholesale change, including rights protection, press freedom, anti-corruption measures, changes to divisive race-based policies, and true democratic rule.
“The People’s Tsunami”, the Malay-language Sinar Harian newspaper screamed in a front-page headline.
But Malaysian politics is known for head-spinning reversals — not least of which was Mahathir’s own conversion to grandfatherly opposition darling — and the future remains unclear.
“Now the hard work begins,” influential political website Malaysiakini.com said in an editorial.
“No one should be under the illusion that a new government would be able to reverse the rot that had taken root for decades.
“For a country that is so divided, it would take time to heal the wounds and for Malaysians to rebuild the trust for one another and for the many institutions that have failed them.”
Multicultural Malaysia has been increasingly riven by political and racial tension under now-ousted leader Najib Razak, exacerbated by a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal.
Najib is accused of presiding over the looting of sovereign wealth fund 1MDB and has responded with increasing repression.
Much depends on Mahathir, whose 1981-2003 tenure as Umno leader and prime minister is often credited with creating a modern Malaysia, but also tarnished by the jailing of opponents and entrenchment of the political dominance of Muslim Malays, the country’s majority group, over the sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities.
Just a few years ago, then-retired Mahathir had chastised his former protege Najib for loosening the reins with political liberalisation moves, which Mahathir warned would lead to chaos.
Those reforms were later nullified as Najib tightened the screws over 1MDB.
Ever the opportunist, Mahathir now rails against the system he helped create and has promised reforms such as leadership term limits and scrapping an unpopular sales tax imposed by Najib.
Malaysiakini called the vote a reminder that politicians are elected to serve the people “and not lord over them”.
“It would be wise for the incoming government to remember this.”
Umno’s Malay bloc has waged a caustic battle against a diverse opposition alliance that reflects the tropical country’s multicultural make-up, yet is prone to internal divisions of its own.
Any incoming administration faces the daunting task of wresting control of a government bureaucracy steeped in Umno’s ways, plus the thorny issue of enshrined policies that favour Malays in politics, employment and other areas.
Mahathir, a key architect of that system while PM, is now bedfellows with a coalition infused with impatient Chinese and Indian constituencies.
But former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is to be released from prison in June, raising the tantalising prospect of Anwar and Mahathir using their combined influence to broker compromises and batter down resistance — if they can get along.
It would be political deja vu.
Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy before a spectacular falling-out that saw Anwar, now 70, jailed for six years on sodomy and corruption charges widely viewed as being trumped up.
Their split led indirectly to Umno’s defeat Thursday by pushing the charismatic Anwar into the opposition, which he revitalised until he was jailed again in 2015 on new and much-questioned sodomy charges, this time by Najib.
Mahathir said after the poll that Pakatan Harapan would seek Anwar’s pardon, making him “eligible to become prime minister again”, suggesting he plans to yield to Anwar later.
Najib’s brother Nazir Razak, a prominent banker, said he expected a smooth overall transition of power.
“It depends how the new government calms markets down, how quickly it can lay out its agenda,” he said.
Najib’s fate is uncertain
The 64-year-old British-educated Najib is the son of Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second PM and founder of Umno’s long-time coalition, Barisan Nasional.
While in power, Najib quashed 1MDB investigations, but Mahathir has said Pakatan Harapan would restore “rule of law”.
1MDB investigations “will probably be reopened and it is important that this be done in a fair and judicious way so that Malaysia can come to terms and move beyond the scandal”, Southeast Asia politics analyst Bridget Welsh told Bloomberg television.
A delicate touch likewise is needed to clean up “systemic problems of corruption and rot and kleptocracy”, she added.
But perhaps more than anyone in Malaysian history, Mahathir consistently surprises his doubters, which he stressed at a post-election news conference.
“Yes, yes, I am still alive,” he said.