Malaysia’s ruling coalition had been in power for 61 years — until the May 9 surprise electoral upset by the Hope Pact (Pakatan Harapan) party coalition. While Southeast Asia has seen little in the way of democratic advance in recent years, Hope Pact’s victory was an example of electoral power against steep authoritarian odds.
As results came in, it soon became clear that this was not a narrow victory by the opposition. Instead, the opposition and ruling coalitions essentially switched places. Hope Pact, combined with additional allied parties, won 122 out of 222 seats. In 2013, the last general election, its predecessor opposition coalition claimed 89 seats.
The National Front, which won 133 seats in 2013, won 79 seats in May 2018. It also lost major ground at the state level — holding on to three state governments, down from 10 in the previous election. Hope Pact is likely to continue attracting defections from National Front parties and politicians, deepening its gains at the state and national level.
The resounding success of Hope Pact also helped smooth the path for a peaceful transition of power. As we have seen in other parts of the world, disputed electoral results often create tensions and violence — and incumbent governments that refuse to leave office. But the election results left no doubt about the desire for change among Malaysian voters.
How did it happen?
To be sure, the ruling National Front coalition faced a tough political environment. Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government were unpopular for a range of economic and governance issues. This included the massive corruption scandal around the state development fund 1MDB, which allegedly implicated not only Najib and his family but also allies and politicians in the ruling government.
Surveys showed that jobs, wages and the cost of living weighed heavily on the minds of voters. The National Front’s campaign slogan of “Bersama BN Hebatkan Negaraku” (Make My Country Great with [the National Front]) failed to reassure voters.
But most political observers thought it unlikely the opposition would win. The National Front had long been able to tap state resources to dispense patronage and cement its connections to political and business elites, as well as voters. It used the legal system, the police force and the electoral commission to throw up barriers to the opposition before and during electoral campaigns.
Malaysia’s opposition parties faced two other challenges. First, they had to build electoral support across ethnic and religious divides that have long characterized Malaysian society, particularly among the rural Malay supporters of the National Front.
Second, opposition candidates had to cooperate with each other to build a viable electoral coalition. These efforts took on a new impetus after the reformasi (reform) movement of the late 1990s, which saw an increase in protests, civil society activism and cross-party cooperation.
The opposition earned a new level of legitimacy after 2008, when opposition parties won control of the country’s two wealthiest states and formed a more united governing and electoral pact. However, until the 2018 elections a united opposition managed only to win state governments — but not national power.
In the May 2018 national elections, the opposition profited from the defection of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, which gave the Hope Pact coalition a nationally recognized leader.
His new party provided a familiar set of choices to disillusioned ruling party supporters. While Mahathir’s democratic track record is dismal, he promised to undo the institutions that paved the authoritarian path to Najib. His party was also easier to reconcile with a secular opposition than the conservative Islamic party, PAS, formerly a linchpin of opposition coalition building attempts.
Is this “A New Malaysia” — or are there more barriers to democratization?
The optimistic Twitter hashtag notwithstanding, the national turnover of power through the ballot box is itself a significant advance in electoral democracy. The National Front’s dominant UMNO party now joins the ranks of dominant authoritarian parties — like Mexico’s PRI, Taiwan’s KMT and the Colorado Party of Paraguay — peacefully toppled through elections after many decades in power.
But a turnover in government is not necessarily a change in regime. Hope Pact won despite systematic barriers to democratic practice that have been baked into Malaysia’s institutions. The democratizing of the country’s institutions will have to take place to make this a true democratic upgrade.
The victorious coalition’s manifesto included promises to create an impartial Election Commission, ensure equal media access to all parties and strengthen lax political financing laws. The challenge will be for the victorious coalition to enact these reforms to ensure subsequent elections are truly democratic — even if it means they could lose.
Expectations will be high for the new ruling government
In addition to living up to voter expectations on these promises, the new coalition will likely see pent-up demands for greater civil and political rights. The government will have to navigate ongoing contentious issues in Malaysia’s politics such as calls to implement an Islamic criminal code and to revisit affirmative action policies targeted at the country’s ethnic Bumiputera (indigenous) majority.
In the immediate future, the new government is certain to reopen the investigation of the 1MDB corruption case. It will need to decide whether to fulfill its pledge of abolishing the unpopular GST (goods and services) tax, a move that credit agencies warn could put pressure on the economy.
The new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, was the architect of many of the country’s authoritarian institutions during his former 22-year reign, from 1981-2003. But his return to power will likely be short. At 92, he is now the oldest political leader in the world. His new government will also seek a royal pardon for his former nemesis (and former UMNO leader) Anwar Ibrahim to return to politics and eventually become prime minister.
Hope Pact pulled off a decisive victory and now faces the difficult task of enacting the reforms necessary for full democratization. In any case, the precedent has been set in Malaysia: Changing the national government through elections is now possible.
Sebastian Dettman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Cornell University.