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Opinion

Mahathir win will reverberate far beyond Malaysia

New government must pursue reform and curb Islamist extremism

Many younger, better-educated Malaysians supported a more multiracial coalition, offering hope for integrating society. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

They came in cars and buses, they flew in from far and wide clutching bags of overseas ballot papers; they even left hospital beds on wheelchairs. They came to vote, and their choice was clear. "The people won this one," said a young Malaysian researcher on the morning after a historic general election in Malaysia that has not only radically changed the country's political landscape but will have a significant impact on the rest of Southeast Asia.

For despite six decades of ostensible parliamentary democracy, this is the first time that Malaysians have changed their government at the ballot box. Sure, elections were held every five years, governments fell and five prime ministers have come and gone since independence in 1957; a measure of popular sovereignty was exercised in lively but never completely free and fair campaigns. The result was always the same: perpetual rule by a coalition of ethnic-based parties led by the United Malays National Organisation, representing the majority Malay community.

The May 9 general election broke the mould. Official results in the early hours of May 10 showed that the multiracial opposition Alliance of Hope, improbably led by the 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad trounced the ruling National Front.

Malaysians voted not only to return to power one of Southeast Asia's most effective strong leaders; they also resurrected the career of one of the region's most prominent Muslim politicians, Anwar Ibrahim, who led a wave of reform in the 1990s aimed at toppling Mahathir.

What happened and what does this mean for Malaysia, the rest of Southeast Asia and a wider uncertain world?

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak waited as long as possible before calling this election, allowing only 11 days for campaigning. He had good reason to worry: although hailed as a relatively liberal reformer when he came to power in 2009 after the resignation of Ahmad Badawi, Najib was plagued by allegations of corruption that drove him to strengthen draconian internal security laws he had promised to repeal; rather than pursue his vision of a truly integrated "One Malaysia," Najib divided the country's ethnic Malay, Indian and Chinese communities and fostered religious discrimination and hatred.

A significant portion of votes against Najib have come from younger, better-educated Malaysians worried about authoritarian rule and the erosion of ethnic harmony. Their support for a younger, more multiracial coalition, which includes many new faces elected for the first time, offers some hope of a genuine effort to integrate Malaysian society more effectively.

For rural Malaysians, mostly Malay and Muslim, the bulk of the country's 15 million voters, the country's solid economic growth rate of more than 5% and strengthening currency did not translate into better wages and affordable prices, which Najib promised. Recently it was revealed that many children living in Low-cost housing in the country's capital of Kuala Lumpur suffer from stunted growth and malnourishment.

For many urban and middle class Malaysians Najib was a suspected thief. Almost $1billion was allegedly siphoned out of 1MDB, a government investment arm that Najib chaired, into accounts linked to the prime minister. Najib insists the funds were a gift from a wealthy Saudi Arabian donor and were later returned. These and other charges of financial malfeasance are being investigated in multiple jurisdictions from the U.S. to Switzerland.

Najib's muzzling of the media using a battery of internal security laws and a new fake news law failed to stem the flow of allegations. It is not yet clear whether a deal might be made to allow Najib to escape justice for his alleged crimes.

Of more immediate concern is how the newly minted but roughly hewn Alliance of Hope will govern. As head of the winning coalition, Mahathir will become prime minister again, but the country has never experienced a transfer of power like this. Everyone is nervous.

At 92, Mahathir is the oldest person to ever be elected to high office -- the veteran premier is fond of breaking records. Yet he appears frail, and along the campaign trail he insisted that all he wanted was to ensure Najib's downfall. Mahathir was also responsible behind the scenes for unseating his own successor Ahmed Badawi and elevating Najib to power - for which he has apologised.

The real winner of this race is jailed opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar was jailed after being convicted of sodomy in 2015; he is due to be released in early June. The Alliance hopes to secure a full pardon for Anwar, which will enable him to win a by-election and become Prime Minister before the end of the year.

However, the process is uncertain. Malaysian politics is characterised by double-dealing and back room bargaining. On the night of the election, at Mahathir's request all the opposition candidates agreed to be sequestered and their phones withheld, to prevent party-hopping, which is allowed in Malaysia.

As police blocked some major roads when the results rolled in, Mahathir warned of "hank panky" and took no chances. Late on election night, he reportedly contacted the heads of the armed forces and police. He also sought assurances from some of the country's nine hereditary rulers that they would respect their constitutional obligations.

There will also be worries about Mahathir's pledge to serve only as interim Prime Minister until a pardon can be secured for Anwar. The two men have long been rivals and each has double crossed the other over the past two decades.

Mahathir's age probably limits his tenure. What is certain is that Anwar, flanked by his wife Wan Azizah and Daughter Nurul Izzah -- both elected MPs -- now constitute a triumphant political family with a stronger-than-expected popular mandate. The hope is that this mandate will be used to implement much-needed reforms; to allow Malaysia's courts to function without the whiff of interference, repeal the internal security act, and calm fears in minority communities about creeping Islamisation.

This last point may be easier said than done. The Islamic Party PAS, which formerly sat in the opposition alliance, contested the election on its own and won close to 20 seats in parliament. PAS will use its rural support base to pressure the new government to advance its Islamic agenda, just as it did with the outgoing government. Anwar's own credentials as a global Islamic thinker and leader are an important element of his support base; he has close ties to Turkey's Islamising Prime Minister Recep Tayyeb Erdogan and past links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Many senior UMNO figures were voted out in this election, which offers a chance for the party to regroup and reform. But if precedent is any guide, UMNO falls back on racism and Islamic orthodoxy in times of stress. Quite possibly the party will overcome decades of mistrust and join hands with PAS, giving it almost 100 seats in the new parliament, adding to pressure on the new government to pursue an Islamic agenda. For despite the surge of liberal young Malaysians of all races coming out to vote for change, the dynamics of power in Malaysia revolve around preserving the boundaries of race and religion.

Anwar may therefore find that his vision of a moderate, Muslim democracy crafted in the 1990s is somewhat anachronistic in a Muslim world pulled towards exclusive and extremist views -- equally he may well be the legitimate voice of moderation that the Muslim world so badly needs.

The impact of this election will reverberate far beyond Malaysia's borders. For the triumph of popular will over entrenched and privileged state power flies in the face of stalled democratic transitions and reversals in the region. The result will jolt the military junta in neighboring Thailand, which has failed to set a date for promised elections four years after seizing power in a coup. It will reinforce Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's fear of a "colour revolution" -- he faces polls in July, but has banned the main opposition party and jailed its leader. China's embrace of countries in Southeast Asia has relied on support for authoritarian status quo, and Beijing made no secret of its support for Najib.

To the south, Indonesia will be pleased to see democracy overcoming efforts to manipulate ethnic and religious sentiment, which is a challenge for the government in Jakarta as it heads towards an election year in 2019. Finally, the changing of the guard in Malaysia could also reshape its role in peace processes in neighboring Philippines and Southern Thailand, a task which has been traditionally dominated by Malaysian intelligence.

Malaysia already benefits from being a relatively open, thriving Muslim majority middle-income economy; the wider region will benefit even more if under new leadership the country curbs Islamic extremism more effectively and allows its democratic institutions to function freely.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. His most recent book is "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."

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