“MAHATHIR had proven his determination to the cause, accepted his past limitations, apologised and sacrificed his time and energy for the people and country,” wrote Anwar Ibrahim, the jailed Malaysian opposition figure on the eve of the country’s 14th General Election.
It seems enough of the Malaysian public think so too, sweeping the 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to power on behalf of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition and toppling incumbent PM Najib Razak on Wednesday – the first time Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional has lost a poll since it came to power in 1957.
According to the Malaysian Election Commission, PH has secured 113 seats in the House of Representatives compared to just 79 for BN out of 222 in total. This is a huge blow to BN – at the 2013 election the coalition won 133 seats.
The conservative Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) also gained ground with 18 federal seats up from its existing 14. At the state level it won government in the northern state of Kelantan for the seventh time and seized back Terengganu from BN.
“This happened because the electoral system, which has in the past worked to contain and limit competition between the government and successive opposition coalitions, has been overwhelmed by a massive opposition surge,” Amrita Malhi, a Visiting Fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University (ANU) told Asian Correspondent.
“Voters have been very circumspect about their voting intentions, and the polls were predicting a Barisan win even last night. Yet they have delivered a result so decisive that Mahathir Mohamad is now seeking an audience with the palace so he can form a new government.”
Aaron Connelly, a Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney wrote on Twitter that: “Only three other Southeast Asian governments have lost an election at polls since the turn of the century (Indonesia 2004, Thailand 2010, Myanmar 2015), and none of those defeats were this unexpected. This is an earthquake”.
What will this mean in terms of policy though?
PH’s 194-page manifesto issued 10 promises in its first 100 days including abolishing the unpopular goods and services tax (GST) and reintroducing public subsidies for fuel which the government scrapped in 2014.
Other immediate promises included reviewing major infrastructure projects awarded to foreign companies and increasing the national minimum wage to RM1,500 (US$370) per month from RM1000 at present.
Importantly, it also pledged to establish a Royal Commission to investigate Najib’s beleaguered 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state development company and other key BN initiatives. Nevertheless, Mahathir said on Wednesday night that they are not seeking revenge, “all we want is to restore the rule of law.”
Director of the Australian National University (ANU) Malaysia Institute Ross Tapsell said that Mahathir had been successful in drawing connections in the minds of voters between the GST and rising cost of living with Najib, corruption and 1MDB. “Citizens sharing material on Facebook has played an important role too,” he wrote.
“Politically, the opposition invested in a strong campaign, first by combining forces with Mahathir, and then by weaving together a new story of the nation,” added Malhi. “[In this narrative] multi-racial people, under pressure because of low wages and the rising cost of living, come together to defeat a corrupt leader whose 1MDB debt has led him to mortgage Malaysia’s sovereignty to China.”
Over the five years it will be in government, PH has promised other broad achievements like “easing the burden of the people” and promoting “just and fair” economic growth. Building more affordable housing, lowering highway tolls and dedicating infrastructure budget to the poorest states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Perlis, Sarawak and Sabah are policy commitments towards these goals.
It has committed to restoring Malaysia’s eastern states of Sarawak and Sabah to their status under the Malaysia Agreement of 1963, thus preserving their relative financial and political autonomy from the Peninsula.
While BN had toyed with introducing a controversial Hudud Bill to increase the powers of Shariah courts as called for by the Islamist PAS party, PH has called for laws that would allow Muslims to legally leave their religion.
It has also committed to abolishing the mandatory death sentence and illiberal laws such as the colonial-era Sedition Act.
While seen as an authoritarian throughout his 22 years in power, Mahathir has nevertheless long been openly critical of Islamic fundamentalism and has compared PAS to the Taliban. His party has pledged to restore Malaysia as a leader of “moderate” Islam.