15 May 2018
The opposition’s electoral win is a big moment, but intertwined politics and personalities make its effects uncertain.
Champa Patel

Dr Champa Patel

Head of Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House

Josef Benedict

Civic Space Researcher, CIVICUS

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Supporters of Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur on 10 May. Photo: Getty Images.
Supporters of Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur on 10 May. Photo: Getty Images.

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In a huge electoral upset, opposition candidate Mahathir Mohamad led the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition to victory over Najib Razak’s United Malay National Organisation (UNMO) in Malaysia’s general election, despite an unfair playing field, electoral gerrymandering and lack of access to mainstream media.

The win is clearly an important moment for Malaysia’s democracy: UNMO had been in power since 1957 and led the country for 44 years as a dominant member of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. But it is also a political power play: Mahathir, a former prime minister, turned on his former pupil Najib in favour of his old political opponent Anwar Ibrahim, who Mahathir is now set to pardon from politically motived charges to pave Anwar’s path to the prime minister’s office.

As such this election could mean important changes for governance, society and the wider region. But the political complexities call into question how radical this change will actually be.

Keeping the winning coalition together

All signs seem to indicate that the deal between Mahathir and Anwar will hold up and a pardon will be granted. Once released, Anwar Ibrahim would likely have to contest in a by-election to become an MP first, before he could take over from Mahathir. However, there will need to be ongoing pressure and scrutiny to make sure this actually happens and there are no delays in succession.

Mahathir, in the meantime, will need to manage competing demands from the various parties involved in the coalition, who will be jockeying for cabinet positions and other key roles within the federal government. In many ways the coalition held together because of the common ‘enemy’ in Najib. But absent that unifying focus, there is a risk that divergent demands and disagreements on how to proceed could lead to delays in taking forward the coalition’s promises for its first 100 days.

The most important of these will be addressing economic issues. Part of the reason Najib lost was BN’s failure to address the impact of the unpopular goods and services tax, which pushed up the cost of living, and to curb rising inflation, which reached an eight-year high in 2017.

Many people will also want to see how the opposition will deal with the 1MDB corruption scandal. Mahathir has said he is not seeking revenge and has promised to set up a royal commission of inquiry. But for PH to retain credibility, Najib and other BN leaders will need to face some form of accountability that draws a definitive line under the misdemeanours of the past. 

Finally, there will be a period of soul searching in the BN. Najib Razak has resigned as the head of UMNO and the chair of Barisan National, handing over the reins to his deputy, Zahid Hamidi. Many believe that if UMNO is to survive it must publicly acknowledge the party’s failures, move away racial politics and rid itself of the warlords that had fed on the spoils of its success.

With key parties – the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysia Indian Congress – now reconsidering their role within BN, and parties in Sabah and Sarawak also jumping ship, the coalition is disintegrating. While this may be welcomed by PH supporters, a weakened opposition will not bode well for democratic consolidation.

Impact on civil society and minorities

The PH coalition made commitments to repeal oppressive laws, including a controversial ‘fake news’ law, in their manifesto. As a minimum, they should start with the Sedition Act and the Printing, Presses and Publication Act, both which have been used to silence dissent and restrict civil society and the media in the country.

Additionally, if the new government wants to stay in power, it has to deal with the treatment of minorities. Over the last decade feeling has been growing among ethnic minorities, particularly the Chinese and Indians, that BN’s policies increasingly favoured the Malays at the expense of other groups.

This has always been an aspect of the racialized politics in Malaysia, but in the face of earlier electoral setbacks, UNMO had recently moved more towards conservative Islam to appeal to Malay voters. The lack of civic space to openly discuss ‘sensitive’ issues of racial and religious discrimination added to these tensions.

The new government has promised some reforms but the question remains as to whether these go far enough to address the degree to which minorities have been marginalized. If not, this support could waver in the long term.

Impact on the region

The symbolism of PH’s wins will be a boost for civil society and pro-democracy activists in other countries. But Najib was dethroned by former colleagues and allies – not radical reformers – working with opposition figures.

The new government is likely to continue its predecessor’s strong focus on championing regional issues that have high domestic support, such as the Rohingya crisis. Malaysia has been one of the most vocal advocates for the Rohingya within the region, but has not necessarily followed that up with adequate support for Rohingya asylum seekers and refugees stranded in Malaysia. The real test will be whether the incoming administration can begin to bridge this gap.

One of the most pressing issues will be how the new administration manages its relationship with China. PH ran on an agenda that mega-projects, such as Belt and Road-related investments, would be revisited, responding to fears of growing Chinese influence.

However, as the fourth-largest recipient of China’s foreign investment, Malaysia needs foreign direct investment to stimulate the economy and support job creation; those expecting a radical re-evaluation and dumping of large-scale infrastructure projects may be disappointed. It is more likely that some accommodations will be made on controversial schemes, such as the East Coast Rail Link.

It is not yet clear how radical the new government’s reform agenda will be. If anything, there is a risk that changes will not go far enough to tackle some of Malaysia’s deep structural and cultural inequalities. But with a mandate to move away from the policies of the past, and there is now an exciting opportunity for meaningful change in the country.

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