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Malaysia’s fundamental political shift

Malaysia’s extraordinary election outcome, in which the six decade old government has been defeated, marks a profound and likely permanent shift for the future of politics in the country. The ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional – BN) government had retained power, particularly in the last decade or so, primarily through a system of rigged electoral boundaries, which can now be expected to be redrawn.

Making electoral boundaries more or less equally representative of the voting population is likely to see the newly elected Hope Alliance (Pakatan Harapan – PH) cement its position in government. This is will be all the more the case as the new PH government begins the process of disentangling Malaysia’s business and political linkages, revamping its deeply compromised judiciary and instituting a range of other social and economic reforms.

The elections were extraordinary, too, for the presence of 92 year old former prime minister Mahatir Mohamad as PH’s nominal head. PH is an extension of a coalition of parties brought together to oppose the government that Mahatir led for two decades.

At the head of the PH has been Mahatir’s former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, who is again in prison on trumped up sodomy charges initially instigated under Mahatir and which Mahatir openly supported.

Mahatir has now promised that, after he is appointed as prime minister he will seek Anwar’s pardon and then step down to allow him to assume the prime ministership. Mahatir’s other one-time protégé, out-going prime minister Najib Razak, can now expect his turn in court, and potentially prison.

This could follow the likely re-opening of investigations into the 1MDB scandal in which Najib ended up with an unexplained US$680 – 1000 million in his personal bank account. Najib said it had been a gift from an unidentified Saudi friend, and that he had repaid the money,

As the scandal unfolded, Najib sacked four ministers, including then deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who questioned his probity, and then closed three blogs sites reporting of the issue. He then blocked Malaysia’s central bank from investigating the matter.

In February 2016, Najib sacked Malaysia’s attorney-general for attempting to investigate the matter, Najib then appointed a close ally, who promptly cleared Najib of any wrong-doing.

In response, Mahatir Mohamad stepped up his own attacks on Najib, essentially criticizing Najib for being the beneficiary of a broken and corrupt system that Mahatir himself had established.  

Over the past six decades, Malaysian politics has been held together by a coalition of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), along with a string of smaller parties over time.

This multi-racial coalition faced a less likely, and sometimes incoherent, opposition, including the (largely Chinese) Democratic Action Party (DAP), the (now split) Malay Islamist Parti Amanat se-Islam (Islamic Mandate Party – PAS) and the reformist Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Peoples’ Justice Party – PKR).

The largely rural, conservative PAS has historically been at loggerheads with the DAP, coming together under Anwar’s overarching leadership only in their shared opposition of the BN government. In 2016, tensions within PAS over its position within the PR opposition and between its rural and urban constituencies saw it split, with the more conservative wing joining the BN government.  

The remaining opposition coalition has, however, managed to draw enough support even in what used to be the BN’s heartland to tip the government out of office. This was despite a last minute further rigging of electoral boundaries.

It is nbow possible, too, that the now BN opposition could fragment, especially as the extensive benefits of being in government are no longer available to its members. Whether the BN survives, or the parties within it remain intact, will be a further aspect of the fall-out from these elections.

For now, however, Anwar Ibrahim will be sitting in his jail cell, likely pleased with the result achieved by the coalition he managed to forge, and wondering if he will indeed be freed and, if so, will Mahatir honor his promise to step down and to create a mechanism by which Anwar can accede to Malaysia’s leadership.