Politics and Personality Keep Malaysia Spellbound as Mahathir Rules Again

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Why you need to know

Disbelief and trepidation linger after Mahathir's unprecedented general election victor.

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We are in uncharted territory.

Much of Malaysia remains transfixed to media, social and traditional, absorbed by the drama of the country’s first transfer of power since its inaugural general election in 1955, prior to the declaration of independence from British rule that followed two years later.

The Alliance Party that won that election, and later became the Barisan Nasional (BN), or National Front, coalition of the defeated incumbent, Najib Razak, had won all of Malaysia’s 13 prior general elections before its new leader, the 92-year-old Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, upset the apple cart.

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Reuters / TPG
New Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gestures during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 10, 2018.

Tension has gripped the country since whispers started to circulate earlier this week that Mahathir and his opposition Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan) might actually have a chance of winning.

The trepidation held as the ballot boxes emptied and the results trickled in for each of the country’s 222 parliamentary constituencies.

Malaysians were glued to their phone screens, riveted to press conferences that ran into the early morning on Thursday as the country's two political heavyweights gave interim speeches.

Finally, at about 4 a.m on Thursday morning, it was clear that Mahathir’s Alliance of Hope had achieved the impossible, or at least the highly improbable, and unseated Najib’s BN for the first time in its history.

The alliance secured 113 federal seats to secure the outright majority needed to form a new government. The Star reported that another 10 elected members of the Parliament of Malaysia had voiced support for the coalition, bringing the total to 123.

In the end, the result wasn't even close. The alliance’s efforts to galvanize turnout, coupled with the resentment of a country that has clearly had enough of a scandal-tainted leader, dragged BN to a record-low electoral performance.

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Reuters / TPG
Malaysia's outgoing Prime Minister Najib Razak leaves after a news conference following the general election in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 10, 2018.

While estimates vary, New Straits Times reported that BN secured about a third of the popular vote, or 3,624,921 votes, while Mahathir’s alliance banked 5,685,252 votes, and the Malaysian Islamic party (PAS) counted 2,043,159.

Tired and bleary-eyed, a small number of Malaysians celebrated in the streets of the capital Kuala Lumpur and administrative capital Putrajaya into the early hours.

But Malaysia is a conservative country, and the outpouring of euphoria and disbelief was primarily confined to social media, particularly as citizens were advised to stay at home amid instances of violence between police and protesters.

The task ahead

Amid an impromptu two-day bank holiday declared by Mahathir as reward for the country’s electoral loyalty, an unprecedented drama has played out.

Even after Najib conceded defeat, the nation held its breath, unwilling to truly believe until Mahathir had been sworn in by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Malaysia’s monarch and head of state, as the country’s seventh prime minister.

It is a process with which Mahathir would have been familiar having experienced it prior to taking office in 1981, on his way to becoming the longest-serving prime minister in Malaysia’s history.

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Reuters / TPG
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks at the closing of the United Malays National Organization general assembly on May 13, 2000.

Malaysians assumed the ceremony would take place quickly, but were forced to endure an agonizing wait, before his leadership was formally declared at 9.45 p.m. on Thursday night.

But what was happening behind the scenes?

Constitutional lawyer Lim Wei Jiet at Sreenevasan Advocates & Solicitors told The News Lens that Article 43(2)(a) of the Federal Constitution states that the person who thinks he commands a majority of parliamentarians in the lower house (Dewan Rakyat) must seek an audience with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who shall then exercise his judgment as to whether such a majority is in fact a reality.

The implication is that the monarch wanted to make sure that the reality met the perception before jumping the gun.

Amid the delays, social media was rife with rumors that the sultans were unhappy with Mahathir’s election and may have moved to block his appointment. Various sultans have also gone on the record in the past to personally criticize Mahathir, and resentment persists from his government’s 1993 decision to abolish royalty’s immunity over civil and criminal prosecution.

But Lim, who is also the deputy co-chairperson of the Malaysian Bar's Constitutional Law Committee, said that the Council of Rulers, comprising the Agong and other sultans, only convenes for specific matters prescribed by the Constitution, and did not in fact have a role to play in the prime minister's confirmation.

Meanwhile, the National Palace issued a statement denying that the Agong had delayed the appointment.

The Palace added: “His Majesty the King strongly supports and respects the democratic process and the wishes of his subjects.”

The Agong also met with component party leaders, PKR (People’s Justice Party) President Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM -- Malaysian United Indigenous Party) President Muhyiddin Yassin, DAP (Democratic Action Party) Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng and the Islamist Parti Amanah Negara (National Trust Party) President Mohamad Sabu at 5 p.m.

“If you look at the palace's statement, the Agong wanted to be very sure of the numbers. He is a constitutional monarch, and as long as a person commands the support of the majority of Members of Parliament, the Agong must appoint that person as the prime minister in accordance to the Federal Constitution,” said Lim.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
People line up to vote during the general election in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 9, 2018.
Now what?

Penang Institute political analyst Dr. Wong Chin-huat said that Mahathir and his coalition partners will be deep in negotiations with other parties, the palace, state institutions, and other stakeholders to consolidate power and ensure the country's stability.

At the Hope Alliance manifesto launch in early March, the group put forward the 194-page "Book of Hope" outlining five main policy pledges -- Reducing the burden of the people, reforming administrative and political institutions, accelerating a just and equitable economy, returning the rights promised to Sabah and Sarawak during Malaysia's formation in 1963, and building an inclusive and moderate nation.

After his swearing-in, Mahathir is expected to reintroduce fuel subsidies for targeted groups, increase the minimum wage, and re-examine mega project awards to foreign countries, while his alliance has promised to review highway tolls, loosen up draconian laws and ensure economic opportunities regardless of race.

Wong told The News Lens he expects the Hope Alliance to deliver 10 short-term promises that are focused on socio-economic issues over the next 100 days to reward voters.

“More substantial reforms will follow but there will be pushback from vested interests. I don’t foresee drastic changes yet as the new government will not want to rock the boat.

“Those with deep ties to the previous regime who are with the Election Commission, Attorney-General’s Chambers, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and even judiciary will be shown the door in one way or another. But the new government will not go for a full purge to avoid the formation of a deep state to sabotage Mahathir’s alliance from within,” said Wong.

Wong’s views recalled Mahathir’s promise that “some heads will roll,” issued during his first press conference after being sworn-in on Thursday night.

“The heads of certain departments must fall. We find that some people are aiding and abetting the former prime minister who was described by the world as a ‘kleptocrat’,” he was quoted as saying by The Star.

In relation to the 1MDB corruption scandal that engulfed former prime minister Najib Razak, Wong said those directly implicated should expect to face the music, in line with investigations carried out by overseas authorities, which include agencies in Hong Kong, Singapore, Switzerland, UK, U.S. and United Arab Emirates, among others.

Political maneuvering

Of the major parties united under the Hope Alliance, PKR holds the most federal seats at 48, followed by DAP at 42 and Mahathir’s own Bersatu with 12.

PKR was led by former Mahathir protege Anwar Ibrahim, who is now in jail serving time for sodomy charges as a result of his arrest on Mahathir's orders during his previous stint as prime minister.

The pair began to mend ties after meeting in 2016, and in February, Anwar told reporters after another hearing at the KL Courts Complex that his former nemesis was no Robert Mugabe.

"They tried to compare him with Mugabe because Mugabe stood firm in his own ground, but Mahathir is prepared to make necessary adjustments. He is committed to reform. He has been maligned enough by the government," Anwar said.

Now PKR is headed by Anwar’s wife Dr. Wan Azizah, who will be Malaysia’s first female deputy prime minister when Mahathir announces his Cabinet line-up.

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Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, waves to supporters after winning the parliament seat of Permatang Pauh, in Penang, Nov. 29, 1999. Wan Azizah, wife of jailed former finance minister Anwar Ibrahim, said his 'Reformasi' movement had survived elections despite her party's modest showing.

“With Anwar's party securing more seats than Mahathir's, there is no incentive to change the arrangement. I expect Anwar to be given extensive freedom in his medical ward while waiting for pardon," Wong said.

“Once he is pardoned, his wife will resign to pave way for him to take over the seat to return to parliament. Although this feel like a dynastic move, the dynastic popularity in Malaysian politics will only reduce with deep democratization, including electoral and parliamentary reform for more parties and talented politicians to emerge,” said Wong.

Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah is also a Member of Parliament. She won her father’s stronghold seat of Permatang Pauh in the northern state of Penang.

“To have father, mother and daughter together in a government would be awkward. Besides, to have a female deputy prime minister is a symbolic breakthrough. To make greater [progress] will require substantial reforms,” added Wong.

At noon Friday, Mahathir told the press that the king had consented to granting Anwar a full and immediate pardon.

He told The Star: “We will go through the proper process of obtaining the pardon for Anwar. It's going to be a full pardon, which means that he is not only pardoned but released immediately."

When asked if Anwar would be a Cabinet minister, Mahathir reiterated Anwar would have to become a member of Parliament first, adding that it may take a long time for him to be able to stand and win a by-election.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Supporters of sacked Malaysian finance minister Anwar Ibrahim run with a banner asking to 'Give Justice to Reformasi (reform) Fighters' in the middle of Kuala Lumpur traffic April 15, 1999. Anti-government protesters mounted fresh street demonstrations over the jailing of Anwar, who received a six year sentence April 14 on corruption charges.
Tables turned

After holding power for 60 years, Najib’s BN coalition now finds itself in the unfamiliar and unwanted position of opposition.

Wong suggested that losing incumbency poses an existential challenge to the former ruling coalition in retaining its machinery and its grassroots base, especially in states where it is the minority.

“As East Malaysian component parties are not loyal to Najib’s UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), the coalition’s survival really depends on two things -- the ability to support its party machine with resources from the states of Pahang and Perlis, and if it is successful in forming state governments in Perak and Kedah -- as well as the ability to make a comeback in the next general election. I expect UMNO to lose leaders and members to parties outside of the coalition," Wong said.

It is truly a new dawn in Malaysian politics, with the old sense of party alignments, and BN itself, not likely a thing of the past, according to Wong. "It is now an UMNO-Borneo bloc, and its long-term viability is questionable. Component parties of the BN coalition will die fast and UMNO stalwarts who did not win federal or state seats are likely to be out as well.”

As Malaysia shakes the sleep from its eyes and wonders if it is waking from a dream, a feel-good factor unlike any felt before blankets the country as Malaysians hope and pray for a new path forward.

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Editor: David Green

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