“IT IS beautiful!” shrieks one opposition supporter at a rally celebrating Malaysia’s change of government. The gold teeth revealed by his huge smile flash in the spotlights at a park in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. “This time they did it!” adds another. “We have waited so long,” explains a local businesswoman, “we wanted change and now we are so excited!” The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party which has ruled Malaysia since independence, no longer runs the country. Its boss Najib Razak, the incumbent prime minister, lost to a man who not only once led his party, but also his country: Mahathir Mohamad. The 92-year-old switched allegiance to head the Pakatan Harapan (PH), an alliance of opposition parties. In elections on May 9th the underdogs triumphed over the ruling coalition led by UMNO, the Barisan Nasional (BN). With an estimated turnout of 76% of Malaysia’s 14.4m eligible voters—down from almost 85% at the last election five years ago—PH and its allies managed to win 122 of the 222 seats up for grabs in the national parliament (see chart). It also won control of six of the country’s 13 states, up from two.
Tessa Jowell, Olympian politician
Artificial intelligence may change the way companies issue debt
Protests on Gaza’s border with Israel turn deadly
Libraries that speak loudly
Britain creates a more hostile environment for immigrants
What is the Singularity?
The result is astounding. Mr Najib’s government had methodically paved the way for victory. It showered goodies on important voting groups, such as civil servants, in its budget in October. It approved new electoral boundaries in March to boost the chances of BN candidates (more than two-thirds of seats in the battleground states of Perak, Selangor and Johor were altered). In a desperate effort just hours before voters flocked to the polls, Mr Najib promised to give an income-tax exemption to those aged under 26. It was all to no avail. “I accept the verdict of the people,” Mr Najib declared grimly the morning after the election, although he did suggest, quixotically, that there was some uncertainty as to which party the king might nominate to lead the next government.
The loss fits into a pattern of declining support for BN over the past decade. In 2008 the coalition lost its two-thirds majority in parliament; in 2013 it failed even to win the popular vote. This time support for its ethnic-Chinese and -Indian component parties ebbed further. Their leaders, the ministers for transport and health respectively, lost their seats. Meanwhile, voters from the Malay Muslim majority split their votes among UMNO, PH and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a stern religious grouping. As a result, PAS made some headway, seizing the state of Terengganu from BN. In three states there was no clear winner.
Dr Mahathir’s coalition is composed of four parties. The biggest are the Democratic Action Party, a disciplined organisation long associated with ethnic-Chinese voters, and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the vehicle of Anwar Ibrahim, another former UMNO leader who fell out spectacularly with Dr Mahathir in 1998. He is in prison for a sodomy conviction which he says was politically motivated, but will be released in June. The expectation is that once he finds a way to return to parliament, he will take over the top job from his former foe. In the meantime Mr Anwar’s wife, Azizah Ismail, appears set to become Malaysia’s first female deputy prime minister. Dr Mahathir’s new party, Bersatu, is the third member of the PH coalition. He and Mr Anwar insist they now get on, but their rift was the defining feature of Malaysian politics for a decade. Last and least is Amanah, a small religious party which broke away from PAS.
In the short term the new government will turn to issues PH shouted about most on the campaign trail. It will try to modify a hated goods-and-services tax of 6%, introduced in 2015 as a way to reduce the government’s dependence on oil revenue. Another urgent priority will be the launch of a proper probe into the disappearance of $4.5bn from a state development fund, 1MDB. PH also said it wants to reintroduce certain petrol subsidies as well as increasing the minimum monthly wage to 1,500 ringgit ($380), both of which will please voters hit by inflation.
In the long term fundamental disagreements over racial policies may strain the new government. About 69% of the country’s 32m people are bumiputra—Malays and other indigenous groups. About 24% are Chinese and 7% Indian. The bumiputra have historically backed UMNO for introducing and defending policies designed to raise their status economically. Many of PH’s minority supporters, and a good number of its new MPs, would like to see this system of preferences reformed or abolished. But any tinkering could exacerbate existing rifts between parties and personalities within the coalition, reckons Francis Hutchinson of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a think-tank based in Singapore. In particular, Dr Mahathir’s popularity with bumiputras stems partly from his staunch past defence of their interests. The policies “will be subject to review and tweaking”, says Wong Chen, a Chinese MP for PKR, “but with the constitutional safeguards for bumiputras fully intact.”
The government may not take on such difficult topics for many months yet, if at all. PH’s triumph suggests that the old model of winning elections—giveaways and gerrymandering—no longer appeals to Malaysia’s increasingly sophisticated electorate. It follows that voters will have high expectations for their new government. It must demonstrate, in turn, that its parties have more in common than just their shared antipathy towards Mr Najib, and do so before its supporters grow disenchanted. “It has been a good day for Malaysia,” declared one mother questioned outside a polling station in Kajang, “But pray for a better country.”