Promise in surprising political comeback

Mahathir Mohamad
Mahathir Mohamad
The political situation in Malaysia is fascinating to those with an interest in world affairs.

It is also encouraging that a nation sinking deeper into corruption and political abuses has the opportunity to reverse that.

That this is happening when much of Southeast Asia is becoming more autocratic, when freedoms are shrinking and democracy being undermined, makes the outcome of this month's Malaysian election all the more positive.

That a group, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) can be turfed from office after ruling the country for the 61 years since independence gives heart that just sometimes it might be possible for long-entrenched ruling coalitions to be overturned.

Of course, there is still a long way to go before Mahathir Mohamad, at the grand age of 92, the world's oldest leader, pulls off what he has promised to achieve. But the democratic world must wish him well.

How extraordinary the tale is. Dr Mahathir himself was an autocrat who has changed sides. He says he has taken power only to give it away. And he says he will reverse harsh media laws which, in essence, were meant to prevent criticism of the government and, no doubt, stop corruption being exposed by journalists.

The story goes back to Dr Mahathir's time as prime minister from 1981 to 2003. He oversaw Malaysia's modernisation, and did so with a strong and tight hand. Among those he sidelined, after they fell out, was his deputy and likely heir, the charismatic and intelligent Anwar Ibrahim. Mr Anwar was jailed in 1998 on trumped-up charges of sodomy and corruption.

Dr Mahathir chose two others to follow him, and the second of these, Najib Razak, has had his hands deep in the till. One report from United States authorities says $US3.5billion ($NZ5.1billion) in public money went missing under Mr Najib, and $US731million ($NZ1.07billion) went into his own account.

He had won the 2013 election only through a patently unfair electoral set-up. And opposition leader Mr Anwar was jailed again for sodomy in 2015 as support for him rose.

Against this background, Dr Mahathir decided enough was enough. In 2016, he left the party he had been leader of for so long and allied with the opposition. He became its leader, proclaiming his choice of Mr Najib was a huge blunder.

Despite Mr Najib's exploitation of racial division, further clamping down on press freedom, further gerrymandering and offers of no tax for young people, the Malaysian people had had enough. Widespread disgust with him and his cronies, rising inflation and economic issues an unhealthy atmosphere took their toll.

It is likely only Dr Mahathir could have pulled this off and led the multiracial opposition to power. If he now succeeds in restoring Mr Anwar and skilfully handles the corruption probes as well as Malaysia's fraught race issues, Malaysia has a much brighter future.

If, on the other hand, Mr Anwar and his supporters simply become another ruling dynasty, and if he and Dr Mahathir, once the elixir of power takes hold, fail to foster political freedom then not that much might change.

Part of the rejection of Mr Najib was for economic reasons, including the imposition of unpopular GST and the refusal to reinstate earlier fuel subsidies. The new coalition will also need wise economic policies - even if they not that popular - if they are to guide Malaysia to a better future.

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