Malaysia’s election shocker: good defeats evil

In today’s world, with democracy eroding in so many countries, it’s great to see one go the other way. To see some voters, at least, stand up for democratic values, defying extreme efforts to manipulate them otherwise.

Malaysia’s election was expected to follow the trend toward rising authoritarianism, with the ruling party having cynically used every trick to make its ouster a virtual impossibility. Yet it’s been ousted.

I know that happy developments like this can turn sour (like Egypt’s 2011 revolution). Indeed, the Malaysia winner is no knight in shining armor. But still, voters behaved wisely, and this is a good day for believers in “the better angels of our nature.”

Mahathir Mohamad

Here’s the backstory (another of those long-running soap operas playing out on the world stage). Malaysia was ruled since independence (in 1963) by the UMNO party (“United Malays”), its success owing much to racialist coddling of the ethnic Malay majority (as against other ethnicities like Chinese). From 1981 till his 2003 retirement, the Prime Minister was Mahathir Mohamad, who grew increasingly authoritarian.

Anwar Ibrahim

Groomed as Mahathir’s successor was Anwar Ibrahim, until in 1998 Anwar became disenchanted and left the government to found an opposition party. The regime tried to neutralize Anwar by jailing him on what were apparently false charges of “sodomy.” Twice. He’s still in prison.

Nevertheless, Anwar’s opposition coalition remained strong at the polls. In fact, in the previous election, it got more votes than UMNO. But UMNO retained its parliamentary majority by grace of extreme gerrymandering. Malaysia doesn’t have “one man one vote,” and parliamentary districts can vary in population. The regime packed opposition voters into a few huge districts while its own Malay stalwarts are advantageously spread among many small ones.

Najib Razak

UMNO’s latest prime minister was Najib Razak. His regime was noteworthy for billions of dollars going missing from a government development fund, 1MDB. A big chunk of the money showed up in Rajak’s personal bank account. He explained it, straight-faced, as a gift from an unnamed Saudi royal.

So great was the stench that ex-leader Mohamad, now 92, came out of retirement to join, and lead, the opposition in this May’s election. But the government pulled out all the stops to thwart them. Such as a “fake news” law enabling it to jail anyone for saying anything it doesn’t agree with (including, especially, anything about 1MDB; Mohamad was among the first to be prosecuted). And the gerrymandering was made even more outrageously rigged in UMNO’s favor.

Still, for that to work would require some voters to vote UMNO. You can normally count on some voters, at least, taking the party line and doing what they’re told. But in Malaysia, this time, too few did. Despite everything, almost unbelievably, the opposition won a parliamentary majority.¬†Malaysians are celebrating this as a national renewal.

So Mahathir Mohamad has been sworn in as prime minister, again (oldest in the world). He promises that, having little time left, he will use it to clean things up; and that within two years he’ll hand the reins to Anwar Ibrahim. (Well, we’ll see.)

But maybe there’s hope for America too.

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