Politics / Malaysia votes for historic change with Mahathir

Posted on: May 10, 2018 | Malaysia

Mahathir Mohamad, 92, has become the world’s oldest leader, edging out scandal-plagued Najib Razak

Mahathir claimed victory in the hotly-contested election. According to the Malaysian election commission, 14.9 million people were eligible to vote for 222 parliamentary seats and 505 state assembly seats Photo: Fazry Ismail / EPA-EFE

The Malaysian masses took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday waving flags and honking their horns to celebrate a victory over 61 years of United Malays National Organization (UMNO)-party rule.

Malaysia’s former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has retaken that position, bumping out his former protégé and incumbent Najib Razak at the age of 92 – making him the world’s oldest leader.

Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) four-party coalition took 121 of 222 parliamentary seats, while Najib’s Barisan Nasional (National Front) took 79 seats, after having won 133 seats in the 2013 election.

Najib’s gamble to redraw electoral lines away from urban voters to favour rural voters of Malay-Muslim ethnicity, his party’s traditional power base, failed. His passing of the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 also failed to secure him a victory among a critical voting public fatigued from a six-decade one-party system with a history of corruption and scandal.

Those scandals have included Najib’s alleged misappropriation of $3.5 billion from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund.

Despite the celebratory atmosphere in the capital, Mahathir played down antipathy toward his adversary as the results came in.

“We are not seeking revenge [against Najib or the 1MDB scandal], we are seeking to restore the rule of law,” Mahathir told supporters and the press early Thursday morning.

It was a stunning return to power for a politician who last held the position of prime minister 15 years ago – at the time himself facing a range of corruption allegations. The contentious contest has been described as a battle between two old powers.

“To some extent, it does look like old powers contesting the old powers,” Khoo Ying Hooi, a senior lecturer at the University of Malaya, recently told Southeast Asia Globe. “Will there be a big change in Malaysia if the opposition wins? There will be change for sure, but to what extent, it is uncertain.”

She added: “For Malaysia to really move forward, I would certainly hope we could do away with the obsession of personality and open up to accept new talents and personality. At the same time, also do away with the heavy reliance on partisanship, the notion of choosing between either [Barisan Nasional] or [Pakatan Harapan].”

Asked early Thursday what the historic victory might mean for Malaysia, Mahathir gave an enigmatic response before supporters that nonetheless brought cheers from the room: “What does it mean? Well, I don’t know. I’ve never experienced this before. This is the first time, so I will have to devise new ways of doing things.”