Taken from East Asia Forum

The stunning victory of Malaysia’s opposition on 9 May 2018 in the country’s 14th general election and the equally impressive peaceful turnover of power — as the federal government changed hands for the first time in the country’s 60-year history — has put Malaysia under the international spotlight.

Newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reacts during a news conference after the general election, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia on 10 May 2018. (Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin).

Bucking the global trend of authoritarianism, millions of Malaysians said ‘enough was enough’ of the leadership of scandal-tainted Najib Razak. Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan coalition won an outright majority in the Parliament and collectively won 50 per cent of the popular vote. Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition saw its seats effectively cut in half and suffered its worst outcome ever at 36.4 per cent of the popular vote.

The dominant story is that this was about three men and their roles in Malaysia’s history — Najib’s alienation of the public due to his perceived abuse of power, Mahathir’s charismatic and strategic return representing a safe landing for those in the system, and jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s core reform drive anchoring the momentum for change. Mahathir’s leadership of the opposition was the game changer as it evoked the groundswell of electoral support that was able to overcome a skewed electoral system. His presence at the age of 92 inspired many in Malaysia’s conservative society to take the risk with alternative leadership. He is the person who received the electoral mandate.

Yet the real drivers of change at the ballot box were three broader socio-political forces: nationalism, a tax revolt and a rebellion against Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) from within its traditional political base. The sentiment of being ‘Malaysian’ dominated — the notion of saving the country from further shame tied to shocking corruption scandals such as 1MDB, anger at the perceived selloff of Malaysian land on unfavourable terms, and the positive force of a multi-ethnic coming together across racial and religious divides. Pakatan Harapan’s ‘Save Malaysia’ campaign tapped into deep national pride and won them votes in all parts of Malaysia, including the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Bread-and-butter concerns have long shaped Malaysian campaigns, but this election was about the imposition of a goods and services tax (GST) from 2015, which was to be causing economic hardship. The GST was the first time that large shares of Malaysians, especially Malays and those in rural areas, were taxed directly. The Malay community in Malaysia have a long history of tax revolts and this election was another. Najib’s main campaign tactics — relying on his resource advantage, handouts and vote-buying — were no longer seen as patronage but as a return of voters’ own money.

This factor explains in part the erosion of political support within the UMNO political base, but the internal dissent goes further. UMNO’s grassroots punished leaders seen as selling out the party to personal interests and rewarded those who stood up to Najib. The institutional decay of UMNO’s machinery during Najib’s tenure was evident on the ground. Many civil servants — including those in the security forces, who have experienced repeated significant cutbacks to their departments as funds were directed toward Najib’s political survival — either opted not to vote or chose the Mahathir or Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) options. PAS won an additional state government (Terengganu along with Kelantan, which it already held) and essentially maintained its seat count (down from 21 to 18) because the party pulled from UMNO’s political base. PAS represented a Malay and Muslim ethno-nationalist alternative with which UMNO supporters were more comfortable (as opposed to the more secular Pakatan Harapan). The swing of support from UMNO’s own political base was larger than 15 per cent.

The 24-hour period after the votes were counted was a critical juncture. In the first few hours, the main challenge was to prevent the use of draconian measures that would have allowed for an ‘emergency’ to be called and to stop potential violence from breaking out. With security personnel surrounding buildings, several small confrontational incidents reported and election officials waiting to legally sign off on results, tensions were real. Pressure was on Najib to accept the results, with important stakeholders inside the security forces, the royalty and the UMNO itself opting to be on the right side of Malaysian history. Public calls for calm, acknowledgement of losses on Twitter, deployment of police and Mahathir’s strategic early claiming of victory all combined to move the country forward.

In the hours before Mahathir was finally sworn in as prime minister, incentives to encourage defections and alliance-switching were brought out. Extensive negotiations among parties in many of the close state government contests took place and delays occurred to give Najib time to try to hold on.

These attempts failed, in part due to the overwhelming public mandate for change that extended into the system. Many insiders understood that there would be serious costs for opposing the will of the majority and, unlike the riots of 1969, this would directly affect the economic interests of those in power. People recognised that Malaysia’s stability and its economic future relies on maintaining democracy. This election will long be remembered as the election in which ordinary citizens and elites alike put their country first and worked together to be ‘truly Malaysian’.