AH Shah and Andrew
Harding, National University Singapore Faculty of Law
Democratic backsliding has become quite the flavour of the decade, unfortunately, as the pages of this blog reveal all too starkly: Hungary, Poland, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, and many other instances across the world. In contrast Malaysia appeared – until recently – an interesting and all too rare contrary example of a state that was, to redeploy the metaphor, forward-sliding. Recent events, however, cast doubt on such analysis, as this note will argue.
On 10 May
2018 a new government – the first in 61 years since independence – took office
on a reform agenda. The Pakatan Harapan
(Coalition of Hope, or PH) won unexpectedly (how often is that adverb being
used of general elections these days?), replacing the kleptocratic and
increasingly divisive Barisan Nasional
(National Front) government of Najib Razak, sunk by the ongoing ‘1MBD’ scandal
that had broken in 2015. PH took power in a democratic tsunami that inspired
expectations for much-needed governance reforms.
The victory was ironic in several important respects. The constituent parties of the PH coalition were led by former long-term BN Prime Minister (1981-2003) Mahathir Mohamed, aged 93, who came out of a long retirement to shore up support amongst the Malay voter base by campaigning against his former party and a Prime Minister he emplaced. By some accounts, the PH needed to secure at least 30 percent of the Malay vote in order to win the elections. Two factors make this situation even more ironic. First, many of the systemic issues underpinning the 1MDB scandal (the breakdown in the rule of law, money politics, cronyism, and conflicts of interest) were ones for which the first Mahathir government could fairly be blamed. Second, a necessary condition for this arrangement was a truce between Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim, his former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, with whom he had seriously fallen out in the late 1990s following the Asian economic crisis, Anwar’s attempts to dethrone Mahathir, and his jailing on Mahathir’s watch, ostensibly framed on a sodomy charge. Thus Mahathir, the leader of a small, custom-built party, PPBM (which essentially is a party built by former UMNO members), was the Prime Minister of choice for the coalition, which included PKR (Anwar’s party), DAP (a mainly Chinese party), and Amanah (an Islamic splinter party). The strategy paid off. With Mahathir as the poster-boy of the PH campaign, they managed to make inroads in the Malay heartlands and other urban and semi-urban constituencies that were previously BN strongholds. This led to a famous victory that indicated the people really did rule and abuses of power would not be tolerated.
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