In what has been termed the “mother of all elections” in Malaysia, the Barisan Nasional — the ruling coalition led by United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party in power for more than six decades — has been defeated. Pakatan Harapan (the alliance of hope) — the opposition coalition — won the 14th general election with 113 out of 222 parliamentary seats, leaving Barisan Nasional with 79, and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia with 18 seats. Warisan Sabah, a Sabah based party, won 8 seats and is likely to join the Pakatan Harapan coalition.
The surprising outcome of the election has brought back to the centrestage Mahathir Bin Mohamad, the most senior politician of the country. With the victory of the coalition led by him, Mahathir, nearly 93, has become the oldest ruling prime minister in the world. Alongside winning the federal parliamentary seats and gaining majority, Pakatan Harapat has also secured majority in most of the state assemblies. Such has been the impact of Mahathir-led opposition that eight ministers and 19 deputy ministers of the Najib Razak-led outgoing cabinet also lost their seats. However, a month ago, when the polling date was announced in Malaysia, it was beyond imagination that Mahathir would not only return to politics but also be sworn in as the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Mahathir was Malaysia’s prime minister from 1981 till 2003 when he retired from politics.
Interestingly, Najib Razak was Mahathir’s protégé. In order to oust Razak, who has been facing allegations of corruption, Mahathir joined hands with the opposition, particularly Anwar Ibrahim, who is currently serving a five-year sentence. Some of the opposition parties have had long-standing ideological differences with Mahathir and his former party, the UMNO. However, such differences were overlooked to deal with a common political rival. Mahathir also formed his own party, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, popularly called BERSATU. The grounds on which Mahathir decided to oppose Razak include corruption (especially allegations against Najib’s 1 MDB), rule of law, separation of powers and Chinese investment in Malaysia. To a great extent, these issues dominated the election process, and are likely to dominate the coming months and years.
It is widely believed that the young urban Malaysians voted Razak out. To some, the UMNO was being dominated by Razak, which did not work well for him. In the run up to the election, he expelled senior party members, which got even the traditional Malay voters angry. Apparently, Malay Chinese voters have also been turning away from the UMNO since 2008. Both the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), the traditional representatives of the Malaysian-Chinese and Malaysian-Indian communities respectively, have been given a blow by the voters, and it would be difficult for both the parties to recover soon. The popular perception among the ethnic minority voters was that their rights and concerns were not addressed properly, and MCA and MIC have just been “managing” their concerns rather than resolving them. According to some, the MCA was not vocal enough in supporting the ethnic Chinese people in their demand for equal business opportunities.
In the coming days, as the euphoria gives way to a realistic assessment of the situation, Mahathir and the ruling coalition will have to sort out some issues on several fronts. For one, it seems likely that Mahathir will appoint Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as his deputy, and work towards a royal pardon for her husband, Anwar Ibrahim-Azizah. That will not be an easy road. As Mahathir himself stated during the midnight press conference on May 10, the coalition has decided on three places in the government — prime minister, deputy prime minister, and prime minister in-waiting (Anwar Ibrahim).
Anwar is likely to be out of jail in June. Once he secures the royal pardon, he will be eligible to contest in elections or get a seat in the Senate, which, then, would open up his path to prime minister’s office. That, however, will take more than a dozen months or more under normal circumstances. In case Anwar does get to the parliament, what would then be Mahathir’s role is a question worth everybody’s time in Malaysia.
During the electoral campaign, Mahathir made several promises to bring Malaysia back on track. Restoring the rule of law, a corruption-free and transparent system, cancellation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which has been in place since 2015, are key issues for Mahathir. He also promised to relook at the nature of Chinese investments in Malaysia calling it a long-term concern for the country. Most of the recent Chinese investments are directly linked with the One Belt One Road initiative. Prospects for improvement in Malaysia’s relations with Japan and India are reasonably high considering that Mahathir would look for more investments and trade ties. It would be interesting to see how smoothly he steers the governance and administration process since fulfilling the promises would demand sustained efforts by both Mahathir and the diverse members of his coalition.