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Opinion

Malaysia's chilling warning for Asia's one-party regimes

Democracy suddenly re-emerges in a bastion of authoritarian rule

Malaysia's election is a lesson that creeping corruption under entrenched regimes will alienate the electorate regardless of economic performance. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

Malaysian politics has come full circle with Mahathir Mohamad's return to power.

Over decades, he cultivated and presided over the same shoddy political system that he has just taken over in this month's hard-fought parliamentary election.

No other political leader in the contemporary era has gained the chance for political atonement that now beckons the 92-year-old former prime minister.

At issue now is whether, after 22 years in power and another 15 in semi-retirement, he will set the tone for a new Malaysia; or will he repeat the same old strongman tactics and policies that have dominated the country for decades which he also applied when he was last in office.

Most saw the possibility of a Mahathir victory coming, but few dared to believe it could actually happen. The entrenched coalition of parties under the Barisan Nasional (National Front) government, led for decades by the United Malays National Organization, just seemed too strong, armed as it was with the advantages of incumbency that had returned it to power time and again.

But this time it was not to be. BN's spectacular defeat on Prime MInister Najib Razak's watch by a clutch of opposition parties under the Pakatan Harapan ( Alliance of Hope), fronted by Mahathir, has sent shock waves through other deeply rooted regimes in the region and beyond.

Malaysia's electoral sea change, underpinned by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) taking 113 seats to the BN's 79 in the 222-member parliament, will be analyzed for a long time. Prior to this general election, the 14th since Malaysia's independence in 1957, BN had seen voting support decline in the two preceding polls in 2008 and 2013.

Yet the UMNO-led coalition relied on gerrymandering and its patronage machinery, while exploiting race and religion issues focused on ethnic Malay national identity and Islamic values to maintain parliamentary control in recent years. This time, systematic electoral trickery and reliance on "money politics" was just not enough.

To undo his past sins and implement bright new reforms, the newly-elected Mahathir faces a tall order. He must rebalance the country's racial and religious structure to promote greater diversity, tolerance and a merit-driven society as well as restore the judiciary's impartiality. That the Malaysia Islamic Party garnered 18 seats, three fewer than last time, should enable the new government to tread a national path of more moderation and less extremism.

The most immediate -- and most ironic -- issue facing Mahathir is his need for a graceful exit just as he is re-entering high office. He can do this by recreating a level-playing field for all sides and paving the way for a new generation to emerge. What he does with Anwar Ibrahim, the repeatedly persecuted opposition leader who once served and was then jailed under Mahathir's watch, will be as important as what happens to the outgoing Najib, as both are cut from Mahathir's own cloth. Anwar, who threw his weight behind Mahathir for this election, deserves a role in a post-BN Malaysia, not least in recognition of all that he has wrongfully suffered over the past two decades since he fell out with Mahathir as deputy prime minister in 1998.

But at 70, Anwar is well past his prime, according to some critics. Like Mahathir, the best he can do is to create a new future for others. Najib, at 64, will now be forced to face up to many allegations levelled against him, particularly the claimed embezzlement of some $681 million from 1Malaysia Development Berhad or 1MDB, the country's state investment arm. But if there is a vendetta against Najib that exceeds the rule of law, Malaysia could risk protracted polarization.

For Southeast Asia, BN's ouster is a chilling warning for dominant one-party regimes, from the Cambodian People's Party and Thailand's military-led establishment to Singapore's People's Action Party and communist parties in Laos and Vietnam, even Brunei's absolute monarch. It has also temporarily halted accelerating, unchecked authoritarian tendencies in the region, from Thailand's military government and Myanmar's human rights violations in Rakhine state to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's extrajudicial war on drugs. But the jury is out and carefully watching whether Malaysia can now restore democratic values and promote a more open and tolerant society. Unchecked authoritarian government has merely been paused in Malaysia, not reversed.

For Thailand's military-backed government, there is the added pressure of being left isolated as the only ostensible parliamentary democracy in the region without a clear election timetable. Thailand's military leaders are unlikely to bring an election date any closer than their latest pledge of February 2019. If the Najib government still lost despite apparent efforts to stack the electoral deck, Thai generals will be more fearful of their electorate despite having engineered a pro-military constitution and having packed anti-graft and electoral agencies with loyalists.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, on the other hand, will feel vindicated by the Malaysian result since it justifies in his eyes his moves to systemically destroy the opposition party to ensure an electoral victory in July.

Any analysis of the Malaysian poll will have to take into account the digital effects of social media on the traditional patronage system. The proliferation and intensification of social media content over the past several years alone has undermined and diluted traditional patron-client relations between politicians and their constituents, especially in rural areas. By the time Thailand votes again, it will have been around eight years since the last poll in July 2011, a period during which online media have made extensive inroads into how people think. Digitization may well have helped democratization by directly connecting the electorate with party platforms and bypassing patronage networks.

The Malaysian election has also served to highlight the inverse relationship between corruption and democracy. Whether BN lost largely due to Najib's tainted reputation or whether PH won because its broadly-based mixed cast under Mahathir struck a chord with the electorate or both, government corruption undoubtedly was a catalyst.

The overriding lessons from Malaysia are that entrenched regimes should be more aware that longevity in power inevitably elicits graft -- and that creeping corruption and malfeasance will alienate the electorate regardless of sound economic performance. Singapore's People's Action Party is an instructive contrast. As the only ruling party in Singapore since independence in 1965, the PAP has kept corruption to a minimum and placed the needs of the electorate at the center of governance.

Having a viable opposition keeps incumbent regimes responsive and adaptive, as is the case in Singapore. The absence of a working parliamentary opposition means incumbent regimes from Cambodia and Thailand to China and Vietnam must rely on political benevolence and economic dynamism combined with social manipulation and repression. But this model is ultimately hard to sustain in the long term.

The Malaysian story is supportive of democratic virtues, with the government and opposition now alternating in power to reflect the popular will -- and triumphing over the authoritarian shadows that have distorted and subverted what people have seen and wanted for themselves and their future.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Relations and directs the Institute of Security andInternational Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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