KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysians woke up Thursday to an unexpected new world of possibilities. Despite manipulating the electoral process, attempting to muzzle critics with a “fake news” law and stoking racial and religious divisions, Prime Minister Najib Razak lost Wednesday's election, as Malaysian voters ousted the ruling coalition for the first since time since the country's independence from Britain.
The new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, is no radical political outsider. The 92-year-old ran the country from 1981 to 2003, was often accused of limiting Malaysian democracy and joined the opposition coalition — Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope — only last year.
His supporters hope Mahathir's government will be less autocratic than Najib's and less reliant on sectarian appeals to Malay Muslim identity. But even if it doesn't turn out that way, most analysts and citizens agree that something important happened Wednesday. Voters proved, for the first time, that they can make a difference by showing up, and that democracy is still alive and kicking in Asia.
“I'm very happy with this result. But I'm also a bit scared,” said Shariza Binti Zolkeple, a 25-year-old Muslim Malay fashion designer waiting for Mahathir to be sworn in Thursday. “After six decades with the Barisan Nasional [National Front] in power, many people will be unhappy, and we don't know what will happen.”
The surprising result is rare good news for supporters of liberal democracy elsewhere around Southeast Asia, a region that has mostly been lurching toward autocracy, violence and religious fundamentalism in recent years. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has overseen a “war on drugs” that has taken thousands of lives, as well as a press crackdown. Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest country, has taken steps toward Islamic conservatism, and Burma (also known as Myanmar) has been host to an explosion of anti-Muslim violence.
“This shows that the pendulum can swing back from authoritarianism,” said Bridget Welsh, a professor of political science and Malaysia specialist at John Cabot University in Italy. “Corruption scandals and Najib's ostentatious wealth flew in the face of ordinary people struggling to make ends meet — and unlike in the last election, they had somewhere else to go, a former premier who while not uncontroversial is known by the public.”
Even the less-than-level playing field during the campaign couldn't stop them. “All the cheating was overpowered by a tsunami of voters,” she said.
Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy modeled on the British parliamentary system, with the throne rotated among nine royal families from the ethnic Malay population, who are constitutionally defined as Muslims and make up about 60 percent of the country.
Late on Thursday, Sultan Muhammad V swore in Mahathir after hours of delay that led to speculation that Najib might be mounting a last-ditch effort to hold on to power. Mahathir says he does not want to govern for long and will work to pardon former deputy Anwar Ibrahim, who beat Najib in the popular vote in 2013 but failed to win enough of the parliamentary positions that matter in the Malaysian system, and then was jailed on sodomy charges he calls politically motivated. The Alliance of Hope won far more than the 112 seats needed to form a majority Wednesday, and if all goes according to plan, Anwar could take power within a year or two and emphasize social justice and anti-corruption.
In Mahathir's campaign, he promised to restore national pride and said that the world has been calling Najib a “crook,” a blow that lands especially hard due to accusations of large-scale malfeasance at the 1MDB state investment fund, which is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and authorities in at least five other countries. Najib largely responded to these challenges by cracking down on free expression and jumping on the electoral scales to try to tip them in his favor.
Although Malaysia was never a bastion of free speech, Najib's government passed a controversial “fake news” law this year that was widely seen as a way to limit criticism before campaigning started. Perhaps predictably, Mahathir was soon targeted by the law. Malaysia's electoral commission also redrew the country's districts in an aggressive gerrymandering exercise that clearly benefited Najib, and the government even temporarily dissolved Mahathir's party in April.
On top of all that, Najib, who briefly supported a criminal code based on Islamic sharia law, also played the race card. In addition to the Malay majority, the country is home to large ethnic Chinese and Tamil-speaking minority populations, who are mostly non-Muslim and therefore exempt from religious law. As the Alliance of Hope includes the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP), Najib warned that the country could be dominated by the Chinese.
In Southeast Asia, ethnic Chinese minorities have been subjected to official political exclusion or even racial violence when leaders accuse them of being rich outsiders with undue influence. The DAP has never taken part in a national government.
But it couldn't sway the voters for Najib. On Friday, Malaysians will wake up for the first time with the National Front out of power and with the knowledge that they can vote out this new group of leaders, too, if they don't like the way things go.
“The great tragedy in Malaysia is that it has one of the most sophisticated democracies in Southeast Asia but that over the years these institutions had withered on the vine due to machine politics,” said Michael Vatikiotis, the Asia regional director at the Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, who said that recent developments elsewhere in Asia prove that democratic success stories can easily be undone. “We must and should celebrate the triumph of these Malaysian democratic institutions, but we should not be naive about the real threats that lie ahead.”
Bevins reported from London.