Malaysia’s Mahathir Returns to Office

Malaysia’s stunning election results on May 9 upended more than 60 years of continuous rule by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party and ushered in Malaysia’s first peaceful and democratic transition of power. By an overwhelming majority, voters rejected the governing coalition of Prime Minister Najib Razak and returned 92-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohammed to office as leader of Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), a highly disparate collection of opposition parties. Using his appeal to peel off large numbers of ethnic Malays who traditionally vote UMNO, Mahathir rode to victory by forging an unlikely alliance with Anwar Ibrahim, who had served as his deputy prime minister before Mahathir sacked and jailed him on trumped-up sodomy charges. Anwar Ibrahim has led the opposition in recent years and has been in jail since being prosecuted again by Prime Minister Najib’s government. Despite being led by two former senior UMNO leaders, Pakatan Harapan is an extremely broad tent made up of Anwar’s centrist, multiracial People’s Justice Party (PKR), Mahathir’s Malay-based Bersatu party, the liberal, ethnic-Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the progressive Islamic National Trust Party (AMANAH).

The result was remarkable on many fronts. It was a repudiation of Prime Minister Najib’s racial and religious scaremongering and a vote in favor of a body politic not divided along racial lines. It was a call for clean government over graft with patronage. And it was a demonstration that the ballot box can deliver change, even when a prime minister does everything in his power to stack the deck.

Malaysia and the World

The result will have significant implications for Malaysian foreign policy and Malaysia’s role in the world, but it will take time for these changes to become clear. In coming days and weeks, much attention will be paid to Dr. Mahathir’s record as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, including his strident approach to the United States. However, the most salient foreign policy issue during the recent election was Malaysia’s ties with China. On the campaign trail, Mahathir called for greater scrutiny of China’s investments in Malaysia, arguing that the Malaysian people do not greatly benefit from Chinese investment. There has also been rampant speculation that Najib derived personal financial benefit from Chinese investment and that his need for Chinese cash to cover losses from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) sovereign wealth fund may have driven national policy.

Mahathir’s track record with the United States creates a risk for bilateral relations, but times have changed. The United States and Malaysia have developed a close and productive relationship across a wide range of areas, and the United States is widely seen as a useful balancer vis-à-vis China. Meanwhile, Mahathir’s de facto deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, enjoys deep and warm ties in Washington, where he has received support during his travails over the past two decades. Notably, Najib’s departure also eliminates a ticking time bomb—the question of whether the U.S. Justice Department would bring charges against Najib related to 1MBD—in an otherwise positive U.S.-Malaysia relationship.

For the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Mahathir’s return to power brings back one of the statesmen of the late twentieth century for which the region often pines. At a time of division within ASEAN, with too few leaders of stature, Mahathir provides Malaysia an opportunity to establish itself again as a leader in the region. Malaysia’s rejection of identity politics and creeping authorities, as well a smooth transition of power, also offers the potential to arrest the sense of decline in democratic governance in Southeast Asia and may give new democratic hope and inspiration to its neighbors.

Regardless, what is most clear is that, while observers around the world will be focused in coming days on the implications for regional politics, their own bilateral relations with Malaysia, or the election’s meaning for democratic governance globally, Malaysians will be focused on their own politics. During this time of historic transition, the United States and its allies should congratulate the Malaysian people for this extraordinary demonstration of the ability of a citizenry to hold their leaders accountable and change their politics for the better.

Amy Searight is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Brian Harding is a fellow and deputy director of the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Brian Harding

Brian Harding

Former Deputy Director and Fellow, Southeast Asia Program

Amy Searight