As political surprises go, there are few like the one we have just seen in Malaysia. It is not often that a nonagenarian politician returns to power by splitting his former party and ousting an incumbent prime minister to take renewed charge of a nation. Although the Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohammed has been publicly grumbling for years against his successors in Kuala Lumpur, few were willing to bet that he can break the decades-old dominance of the ruling coalition over Malaysian politics. For many in Kuala Lumpur, Mahathir, at once admired and feared when he was in power during 1981-2003, seemed little more than a nuisance. But Mahathir’s political skills in stitching together an unlikely coalition coupled with huge resentment against the government led by Prime Minister Najib Razak helped produce the Malaysian political miracle.
To appreciate the true significance of Mahathir’s victory, it is necessary to understand the nature of Kuala Lumpur’s power structure. Organised around the Malay majoritarianism, incarceration of potential Malay challengers like former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, discrimination against Chinese and Indian minorities, compromises with Islamic conservatism, controls over political freedom, crony capitalism and massive corruption, Kuala Lumpur is a difficult fortress to penetrate. The signs of trouble for the ruling coalition, however, were evident during the last elections in 2013, when the it lost the popular vote but won a slender majority in the parliament. Najib was therefore determined to play every trick in the book and outside to maintain his hold on power. These included a range of measures from gerrymandering the constituencies to preventing the opposition parties from campaigning effectively and manipulating the polling procedures to suit the ruling coalition.
Mahathir’s return as the prime minister has certainly raised hopes for long overdue political change in Malaysia. But those expectations must be tempered. Although Mahathir was undoubtedly the man who led Malaysia’s economic modernisation in the last two decades of the 20th century, he was very much involved in the construction of a political system, whose deformities got increasingly accentuated under his successors. Will he go beyond chasing the corruption charges against Najib and clean Malaysia’s Augean stables? Can he begin to move Malaysia away from ethnic and religious majoritarianism? Sceptics would caution against holding one’s breath. But opposition political leaders across South East Asia are hoping that change in Malaysia would bring renewed momentum for political and social liberalisation in the region. But authoritarian governments and China, which has made big economic gains through deals with the region’s corrupt rulers, might be betting that Kuala Lumpur might soon return to business as usual.