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Malaysia is making history and the world is watching

Sydney Morning Herald - May 10, 2018

James Massola, Kuala Lumpur The victory of Malaysia's opposition parties, led by Mahathir Mohamad, is utterly without precedent in the history of this country.

In one form or another, the Barisan Nasional coalition has ruled Malaysia for 61 uninterrupted years since independence. This is uncharted territory for Malaysia and, at the time of writing, it is still not clear what happens next.

Analysts and pollsters have been shocked by the result, which has turned the political system of a nation of 31 million people on its head and defied south-east Asia's long tendency to move towards one-party rule and authoritarian leaders.

It comes at a time when populist, strongman leaders such as Hun Sen in Cambodia and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the ascendant to say nothing of Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

And in a supreme irony, the victory has been achieved by Mahathir, a man who was himself the strongman prime minister of Malaysia for 22 years until 2003, and who had a fondness for crushing political opponents such as one-time opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Australians will forever recall Mahathir for his "recalcitrant" stoush with Paul Keating in the early 1990s.

Now we, like people around the world, will also know him as the man who finally achieved an unlikely victory by an opposition party in a democratic election in a country that is a near neighbour, ally, and close trading partner.

It was only in the early hours of Thursday morning and despite election campaign allegations of gerrymandering, vote-rigging, dodgy "fake news" laws and shameless election sweeteners that the defeat of Prime Minister Najib Razak's government was confirmed. (One government promise was that anyone under the age of 26 would no longer need to pay tax.)

Mahathir has demanded that his coalition be invited by the King of Malaysia to form government, as it can command the support of about 135 MPs in the 222 member Parliament.

He is determined to blast out Najib, a man he once mentored but then turned on because of a scandal over the alleged misuse of the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund. The scandal has dogged Najib for years.

Najib, in another piece of political brinkmanship, claimed on Thursday morning that he respected the voters' decision, but he added that no single party could claim to hold the 112 seats required to form a majority.

Therefore, he said, it was up to the king to decide who would form the next government.

Forget the fact that Barisan Nasional has governed in a coalition, too, and that the parties in opposition to it now have between them a clear majority.

This was a transparent attempt by a defeated prime minister to game the system (and perhaps to avoid a criminal investigation), and Malaysians are unlikely to stand for it.

The strongman-turned-democrat Mahathir was standing on Thursday with Wan Azizah, the woman who will be his deputy prime minister, and the wife of the very same Anwar he once persecuted.

Anwar himself is waiting in the wings. He is ready to receive a royal pardon and is on a promise from Mahathir to take over the prime ministership in the years ahead in a peaceful hand over between the two former enemies.

Change, it seems, has finally come to Malaysia though took a 92-year-old former strongman to deliver it and the country's citizens are ecstatic.

Further gaming of the system by the political elites could have unpredictable consequences. And this time, the world is watching too.

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/malaysia-is-making-history-and-the-world-is-watching-20180510-p4zeji.html.

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