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Opinion

Mahathir win will reverberate far beyond Malaysia

New government must pursue reform and curb Islamist extremism

| Malaysia
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.

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