20 May 2018
Mahathir challenged by own legacy
Last week’s spectacular return of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to power after the country’s general elections is one of the most astonishing political developments of our time.
Political spectacles are common, but this took it to the next level. The meanderings of Malaysian politics do not cease to amaze external observers — just think about how far back all the key players go.
However, their bad blood was put aside to unite for a common cause and oust former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak.
Voters sided with Mahathir, who achieved what for many years the opposition could not: to end the rule of Barisan National in the nation’s first ever transfer of power.
Mismanagement of the country, including corruption and rising cost of living, had made the population angry enough to vote against Najib.
Many chose Mahathir because of his years-long experience in government, and the belief that he is strong enough to “clean up the swamp” and shake off cronyism in the capitalist structure.
However, among the many ironies of this development is that the “swamp” was designed under his earlier rule.
While democratic regression is prevalent across Southeast Asia and beyond, Malaysia proved the power of general elections. The irony is that the elections needed a strongman and former authoritarian leader to secure a democratic victory.
Malaysian voters proved all the political scientists, risk assessment analysts and democratic skeptics wrong.
The implications of the 14th Malaysian general elections’ remarkable result are not only important for Malaysia itself. The election has for the next two years set the tone for general elections in the majority of Southeast Asian democracies, including Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Myanmar.
Indonesia and Singapore, Malaysia’s closest neighbors, are taking notes, although for different reasons. Indonesians are to face some similarities in terms of rural-urban and ethnic-religious divisions, while Singaporeans are contemplating whether they are prepared for a stronger opposition.
Mahathir and Malaysian reformist Anwar Ibrahim originally came from the United Malays National Organization, which reminds of the thin line between autocracy and democracy.
A democratic process of voting ensured a continuity of autocratic rule.
To break free from this perception, Mahathir — who has vowed to stay in power for another year or two before transferring power to Anwar — needs to prove himself as a successful transitional leader. He will need to surpass his own legacy and reinvent himself.
His first task is obviously dealing with the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) case, which includes looking again at evidence of Najib’s activities and the entire judicial system that cleared him of the charges in 2015. Head will roll, as Mahathir has promised.
Mahathir’s challenges of comprehensively cleaning up the swamp and restoring the rule of law, will require more effort than participating in election rallies.
The voters will hold Mahathir and Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) accountable for their promises.
Thus far, Mahathir has yet to articulate any strategy to systematically fight corruption, other than addressing the 1MDB case. If the rule of law is to be restored and the swamp cleared, a nationwide, long-term and likely heavy-handed approach will be needed.