Malaysian opposition wins for the first time since independence

A new generation of voters wanting change and fed up with political corruption vote Mahathir-led coalition to power.

New Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur,
At 92, Mahathir is the world's oldest head of state [Reuters]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – How do you topple a government that has been ruling a country uninterrupted for more than six decades? Well, if the latest events in Malaysia are anything to go by, here’s how it’s done.

Bring in one of the architects of that historic party, let’s call him Mahathir Mohamad. It does not matter if he is 92 years old. Make sure he has had plenty of experience as head of that party and running the country, in this case, 22 years.

Team him up with his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, who’s in jail mainly due to a precedent set by Mahathir, but that’s all history now.

Anwar spearheaded the movement known as Reformasi, calling for political and economic change in 1998 as deputy prime minister to Mahathir.

His rising popularity threatened the leader, and he was subject to a lengthy trial that eventually landed him a prison sentence on charges of sodomy, which he denies.


“I guess lots of Malaysians find it deeply ironic that the push for reform sparked off 20 years ago because of a fight between Mahathir and Anwar,” said Kean Wong, an analyst with, which provides perspective on developments in Southeast Asia.

“And it is now being helmed by Mahathir, who is campaigning against kleptocracy and other issues,” he added. 

Wong believes, despite Anwar and Mahathir’s well-documented rivalry, it was necessary for the two forces to join together.

“I think Mahathir was instrumental,” he said. “Having covered five elections and the key Reformasi ones over the past 20 years, it was obvious that Anwar Ibrahim could never quite access the rural Malay hinterland and heartland, a crucial vote bank, the way that Mahathir’s aura and image could.”

Seismic shift

Mahathir, the master political strategist, brought together a coalition of former opposition politicians he oppressed, punished and jailed while in power as prime minister.

He convinced them that together they could take down their common enemy, the then-ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional.

They ran a campaign denouncing the systems and government structure plagued by cronyism and corruption. A system that Mahathir created while prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

Barisan Nasional and its leader, former Prime Minister Najib Razak have been embroiled in one of the world’s biggest corruption scandals known as 1MDB involving billions of dollars.

Barisan Nasional and its leader Najib have been dogged by a massive corruption scandal [Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images]
Barisan Nasional and its leader Najib have been dogged by a massive corruption scandal [Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images]

Analysts say the country was ready for this seismic shift. A new generation fed up with corruption and empty promises, armed with social media and other tools to gather information, had reached the ballot boxes.

They were not to be intimidated by a new raft of laws imposed in advance of the elections to crush dissent.

And unlike previous generations, they weren’t to be swayed by last-minute government campaigning comprising mainly of handouts of cash and other commodities.

So then, an historic victory for the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan or The Alliance of Hope led by Mahathir and Anwar’s party.

‘An historic moment’

Outside the palace, cheering supporters gathered on Thursday, waiting for Mahathir and his partners to be confirmed as new rulers of the Southeast Asian country.

A 25-year-old engineer celebrating in front of the gilded gates said he was here because it was momentous.

“I never expected to be able to witness this kind of democracy in action, for the last few decades every election felt like a default,” the 25-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

“Mahathir may be leading us through this transition of a new government, but it’s his supporters that will carry on the drive for development and progress in this nation.”

The revellers were of all races and backgrounds. Analysts say a point worth noting as this new coalition government is a step towards dismantling the race-based politics that Mahathir himself had pioneered to retain power last century.

It’s something the Malaysians are well aware of.

“This is a historic moment, we can see Malays, Indians, Chinese, all together. We are so united, witnessing this change. Even the parties are multiracial, it’s so different from Barisan Nasional,” said a 32-year-old teacher.

This teacher who was among the revellers, also said that this couldn’t have happened without the Mahathir-Anwar dream team.

“We are the only country in the world who has a prime minister in waiting, that is Anwar, and we have been waiting 20 years for him,” he told Al Jazeera.

Supporters wait outside the national palace for Mahathir to be sworn in [Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images]
Supporters wait outside the national palace for Mahathir to be sworn in [Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images]

Many stayed away from the celebrations. Some heeding police and government warnings that it may lead to agitations, and some taking stock of what happened more soberly.

Stephanie Augustin is a freelance financial journalist. She is sceptical of the new government.

Augustin believes the economic and fiscal reforms promised by Mahathir in his campaign don’t add up.

“On the policy side, [former Prime Minister] Najib Razak is on the right track by introducing fiscal deficit that is good I believe. The opposition manifesto is not financially viable to me, it will hurt a lot of people.”

She is referring to the opposition’s (Mahathir’s) promise to remove the six percent consumption tax known as GST. Economists believe that it’s a way to spread the tax burden evenly, as many people in Malaysia fall below the tax paying bracket.

She says she abstained from voting as she has no illusions about any of the political groups involved.

“The face of change and hope which is their slogan shouldn’t be the guy who led for 22 years as a dictator, it doesn’t make sense to me,” said the 27-year-old.

Age has sharpened Mahathir’s sense of humour and irony. He is well aware of his reputation as a former strongman who held the country in a vice-like grip as prime minister.

While prime minister, he is credited with being the architect behind Malaysia’s economic development during his 22-year reign.

Fielding a barrage of questions at a press conference following his victory he told journalists: “You may ask questions but in a very orderly fashion, please remember that I was the dictator.”

That is at the forefront of many people’s minds as they enter this new era. But law professor Azmi Sharom says people now understand they have the power, and the old way of governance will not be accepted.

“Mahathir was what he was because he was surrounded by people who would not stand up to him,” he told Al Jazeera. “He was able to do what he was doing because he was all powerful but that’s not the case any more.

“I think the other component parties and ministers, once he appoints them will make sure the promises are kept.”

Mahathir has promised that winning the elections would enable broad and deep reforms. Reforms that will essentially dismantle the system he built up over decades.

Source: Al Jazeera