It’s uncommon in the developing world to see elections filled with so much drama and backstory that it could be cast as a screenplay. But the fourteenth general election in Malaysia read like something straight out of Hollywood.
On May 9, Malaysia witnessed the toughest political battle in its entire history as an independent state. The scandal-ridden ruling governing coalition, Barisan National (BN), was led by incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak, the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister. He squared off against a fractured opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), held together by Malaysia’s beloved longest-serving premier and Najib’s former mentor, Mahathir Mohamad, who was mentored by Najib’s father. Although BN has held power for 61 years and has heavily gerrymandered voting districts to secure its power, a wave of voters frustrated with the corruption of Najib helped give PH a wildly unforeseen victory in parliament.
Since taking office, Najib’s government has been accused of siphoning $4.5 billion worth of public funds to purchase of goods and investments in foreign countries. Another $680 million was suspected of going into Najib’s personal bank account. Najib himself has also been implicated in a 2006 murder of a Mongolian woman. He denies any wrongdoing in both situations.
Mahathir, who is now the world’s oldest head of state, came out of retirement to unseat his protégé. During his 22 years as premier, he helped elevate Malaysia to one of the region’s strongest economic powers. But even his term was not without controversy; he established a handful of Islamic bureaucracies under the prime minister’s office to regulate the practice of Islam, issue national fatwas, write the Friday prayers, and determine what is considered orthodox and deviant. And in 2001, he declared Malaysia to be an Islamic state.
But since declaring that he would again run for the office of prime minister, Mahathir has shifted his narrative to promote the ideals of good governance and human rights. He even promised to reconsider the status of some of the Islamic bureaucracies if he was elected.
Polling data conducted on May 8 suggested that PH would claim 43 percent of the vote in Peninsular Malaysia, while BN would claim only 37 percent. This is despite the last-minute promise of Najib to grant every citizen under age of 26 a 100 percent tax-break for 2017 filing year if BN was re-elected. Other early data showed that 57 percent of ethnic Malays, who make up half of the population, said they prefer the opposition candidate, Mahathir Mohamad, to the incumbent Razak. At the start of the day, BN, which has held the majority of seats in parliament since 1957, was expected to secure 100 seats, while the opposition was expected to secure 83. Thirty-seven seats were too close to call.
Voting went from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and turnout was estimated to be 76 percent, at least 16 points greater than the last time an election was held on a weekday.
Throughout the day, it seemed as if there was a concerted effort by the BN-controlled Election Commission to ensure BN retained power. Analysts said that a higher voter turnout would favor the opposition, and it looks like the BN made several subtle attempts to ensure the election went in its favor. Many Malaysians living overseas had not received their ballots even just two days before the election. Opposition members claimed that government-controlled polling sites were not allowing opposition polling agents inside voting sites to monitor against fraud. There were multiple instances where individuals were given ballots that had already been marked and were not given new ballots. Some polling sites were found to be turning away individuals because they were wearing shorts.
Polling closed with long lines still waiting to cast their vote, and results did not come until late into the night.
Around 1:30 a.m. on May 10, Mahathir began claiming that PH had acquired the necessary 112 seats to form a government. Unconfirmed rumors on WhatsApp spoke of the Malaysian sultans calling for Najib to concede and step down. At 2:28 a.m., Malaysia’s largest independent newspaper, Malaysiakini, began indicating that PH had obtained the necessary 112 seats out of 222. Social media posts showed crowds of people flooding the streets, waving the opposition party flag, and fireworks exploding in the sky. Countless tweets showed Malaysians praising the results, believing that they would lead to “a better Malaysia.” By 4:00 a.m., international news outlets were announcing the shocking change in power.
By 6:00 a.m., it was clear the election was a landslide. PH had claimed 121 seats, while BN won only 79, 54 less than it received in 2013. And although Najib was re-elected in his district, two of his ministers and four deputy ministers lost their seats. And PH, which had previously only controlled two of Malaysia’s 13 states, increased its hold to at least six states. Officially complete results had not yet been published at the time of this writing.
What the Election Means for International Affairs
But more than just changing the internal course for Malaysia, this election illustrates three points of a greater story about the road to democracy in the developing and Islamic worlds.
First, in developing and ethnically diverse countries, democracy is typically considered less likely to become a reality. Issues of poor governance, social conflict, and low social capital have been associated with ethnically heterogeneous societies and have made democratic institutions more difficult to achieve. And in many Muslim-majority countries, a dictator or quazi-dictator has typically enjoyed unchallenged power for long periods of time. Even when such countries hold elections and claim to be democratic, significant changes in power away from the traditional ruling group and away from non-Islamists has been atypical.
Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country, with more than 60 percent of its population professing Islam. But more than that, Islam is enshrined in the constitution as the official religion of the state. Malaysia is also remarkably diverse and multiethnic. Almost every religious group on the planet is represented in Malaysia. And Chinese, Eurasians, Indians, indigenous peoples, and Malays all call Malaysia home. This election reveals a counterargument to both of the traditional narratives surrounding Islam and diversity in building a democratic state. And by bringing a former head of state into a diverse opposition, it may even provide a model for other countries pursuing democracy to consider.
Second, this election shows that religious freedom needs to be a greater part of America’s foreign policy toward Malaysia. For decades, the United States’ relationship with Malaysia has been centered on trade and defense against terrorism. Washington’s dealings with the BN alliance has hardly ever touched on human rights or religious freedom. In fact, John Kerry called Malaysia a “multi-faith model for the world,” in a visit to the country in 2013. He did so only months after a dozen churches were burned down and a Bible-printing society was raided by the government because Malay-speaking Christians were using the Malay word “Allah” to refer to the Christian God.
An election of PH shows that Malaysians not only care about economic growth—the GDP growth rate has remained steady at 5 percent under Najib—but also the human rights of free expression and religious tolerance, which are enshrined in the constitution. As the Trump administration begins to establish a relationship with the new Malaysian regime, it can feel comfortable including discussion of human rights and religious freedom along with its discussion of trade.
And finally, Malaysia’s election shows that populism may be rejected in the face of corruption and human rights abuses. All over the world, populist movements are taking hold and changing the electoral landscape. These movements are often characterized by perceived losses of culture and the desire to promote one ethnic group over another. BN has always been an ethno-nationalist group that has sought to elevate the rights of Malays, even when it meant ethnic minorities suffered economically. In October, seven months before Najib dissolved parliament, he introduced a budget designed to increase subsidies and handouts to his traditional ethnic Malay base. But affirmative action programs and special benefits were not enough to persuade the population to reelect Najib.
The 1MDB scandal, in which Najib allegedly pocketed $680 million and the government siphoned over $4 billion to pay for goods and investments in foreign countries, was one of the biggest factors playing against Najib. But his authoritarian tendencies in cracking down on political dissidents also played poorly with voters. At the beginning of April, just after parliament was dissolved, Najib signed a “fake news” bill into law that would allow the government to fine or jail anyone who published, printed, or disseminated information that was wholly or partly false. Malaysia rejected these authoritarian and populist moves and may even serve as an example for other countries where populist movements are rising.
In the 61 years that BN was in power, nearly every other country experienced a significant change in political leadership, save a few communist and royal states. While the Soviet Union came and fell, the Arab Spring and Iranian Revolution shocked the Middle East, and sub-Saharan African countries experience tumultuous civil wars, BN maintained power in Malaysia by driving a wedge between the majority ethnic Malay-Muslims and minority religious and ethnic groups. It welcomed the Islamization of politics and began controlling the practice of Islam in a way never envisioned by Malaysia’s constitution. Its economy grew, but at the expense of the loss of civil and political rights.
On May 9, Malaysia voted to become a new Malaysia—a Malaysia which doesn’t separate groups into Malays, Indians, and Chinese, but a Malaysia for all Malaysians. Over the next five years, it will have opportunities to begin to peel back many of the affirmative action programs and restrictions on fundamental liberties that have characterized Malaysia in the twenty-first century. Scholars will be able to study and learn from this election to better understand political Islam, diversity, and democracy, and Malaysians will have an opportunity to build for themselves a brighter future, if they so choose.
Zachary S. Jones is the author of “The Malaysian Model of Islamic Governance and Religious Freedom,” a thesis which examines the relationship between Islam and religious freedom in historical and contemporary Malaysia. He has previously interned with The Heritage Foundation and The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and is a graduate of Florida State University with degrees in Political Science and International Affairs.
Photo Credit: A women walks by flags of Barisan National on April 15, 2013, before thirteenth general election. By Firdaus Latif, via Flickr.