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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia's opposition win shakes up Southeast Asia

First power change in 61 years reflects anger over Najib and economic ills

Mahathir Mohamad, center, celebrates the election victory of his opposition coalition in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur.   © AP

TOKYO -- The election victory by Malaysia's opposition coalition, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has resulted in the country's first transfer of power since its independence in 1957, sending shockwaves through Southeast Asia.

Wednesday's lower house election reflected voters' disillusionment with outgoing Prime Minister and ruling coalition leader Najib Razak over corruption allegations and his hard-line stance. It also hints at the economic woes that have recently befallen the country.

The results must surely be a wake-up call for neighboring countries, where democracy is under siege. Ahead of the election, the Najib administration was putting pressure on the opposition through means such as redrawing constituency boundaries in favor of his coalition and enacting an anti-fake news law to stifle criticism.

Now, as elections draw near in several Southeast Asian countries, it remains to be seen how the power shift in Malaysia will affect other polls.

Cambodia is scheduled to hold a general election in late July, Thailand in 2019 and Myanmar in 2020. Indonesia is expected to choose a president next year, and Singapore -- which also has not seen a change of power since its independence -- will hold a general election by 2021.

Meanwhile, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has shuttered media critical of his administration and forced dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, citing a plot to overthrow his government. In Thailand, the military junta is muzzling free speech as it aims to maintain its grip on power.

Using popular sentiment to overturn authoritarian rule is reminiscent of the Arab Spring in 2011. But the democratic movements that spread through the Middle East caught fire in countries where elections were non-existent. This differs from Southeast Asia, where elections -- even in tightly controlled political environments --  can effect change, as was seen in Malaysia.

The defeat of Malaysia's ruling party is widely attributed to corruption in the Najib administration, which faced allegations of financial fraud concerning a government fund. People were further incensed about the heavy-handed way the government tried to silence public outcry over the allegations.

That being said, Mahathir, who took on Najib as a young politician while leading the then-ruling party, was symbolic of a "developmental dictatorship," prioritizing the economy at the expense of political freedoms. Censorship and manipulating voting districts to weaken opposition were two of Mahathir's favorite tactics. He also built the framework that favors the ruling party, a system still in place today.

So rather than viewing Wednesday's election as a sign of Malaysia's growing democratic maturity, attention should focus on the economic woes that affected the vote.

Malaysia, which had a per capita gross domestic product of $9,812 in 2017, is nearing its goal of becoming an advanced economy. The country has maintained a relatively high growth rate of between 4% and 7% under the Najib administration. However, rising prices are making it increasingly difficult for middle-income people to make ends meet, especially after the introduction of a consumption tax in 2015. This demographic is believed to have thrown its support behind the opposition coalition.

"Politics in Southeast Asia is the politics of economic growth," said Takashi Shiraishi, chancellor of Japan's Prefectural University of Kumamoto and an expert on East Asian affairs. "The political arena remains stable only as long as the government fulfills expectations that living standards will rise. But as soon as it fails, stability goes out the door."

In other words, people in the region will tolerate soft dictatorships only as long as they feel well-off.

The economic malaise that plagues Malaysia is also affecting Thailand, which has also fallen into the so-called middle-income trap where a developing country's growth stagnates after a period of steady expansion. Singapore finds itself in a similar situation as it tries to find a new growth driver to replace its financial industry.

Malaysia's election upset could portend change in the region, specifically in nations struggling to escape the middle-income trap.

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