The surprise return to power of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed in Malaysia’s recent elections — and the promised return of his former enemy, Anwar Ibrahim — has opened a new possibility for the island nation: a movement towards democracy. But, warns, the CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick, that path is fraught with risks and dangers.
Octavian Report: What are the dynamics in Malaysia that delivered the surprise May election result? Should it have been such a surprise?
Joshua Kurlantzick: I was definitely not expecting it. There were some indications, but I think the fact that a lot of the people who were analyzing it didn't expect it suggests that people just missed it. Polling in Malaysia did. Close to the election there was polling suggesting that former Prime Minister Najib's support was softening, that he was going to possibly lose the popular vote and still win a majority in parliament because of gerrymandering.
But I think people failed to take into account the high level of Najib's unpopularity and the opposition's ability to capitalize on that, and perhaps underestimated as well the appeal of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, who's now the Prime Minister. He appeals to certain rural, ethnic Malay voters who provided the going-over-the-top vote for the opposition coalition.
And the opposition actually won the popular vote last time. They lost in Parliament because of gerrymandering and possible fraud. So it wasn't like they had no bedrock of support, but they were able to expand their support to those rural, conservative voters who hadn't been part of their base or their support before — and that was enough to put them over the top.
Malaysia's a multiethnic country, and the opposition already had pretty strong support among the ethnic Chinese and Indians who are in the minority but still form a substantial number. And they also had pretty strong support among a certain number of urban Malays. But Mahathir’s presence boosted their support among rural Malays and put them in a much stronger position.
OR: Can you talk about the political DNA of the opposition coalition?
Kurlantzick: Well before Mahathir, the opposition existed. Mahathir was Prime Minister for two decades in the 1980's and 90's and early 2000’s. And he was a pretty autocratic Prime Minister, although Malaysia had a façade of elections. He was essentially an autocrat.
The real political opposition emerged in the late 1990's. It built up, actually, after Mahathir sacked his then-deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. Mahathir oversaw a legal case — I would say a dubious legal case — against Anwar, and the opposition kind of developed from that. There hadn't really been an effective opposition previously.
Until the last year or two, the opposition was essentially led by Anwar and, to some extent, his wife and his daughter (who's a very competent politician in her own right). And the opposition was a combination of urban, more progressive Malays who were fed up with the Barisan National coalition, as well as ethnic Chinese and to some extent ethnic Indians, some of whom also might be urban. The bedrock wanted an end to certain types of politics in Malaysia. These include corruption and a policy that has been in place for decades, a policy called bumiputraism that is like affirmative action for the majority of Malays. They also wanted better governance.
Anwar was in jail until late May, because former P.M. Najib oversaw a case where Anwar went to jail. Again, I would say on dubious charges. So the opposition was a little bit lost in the run-up to the 2018 elections. Then Mahathir, whom no one really expected to return to politics, jumped in and they took him on as the leader of a very unwieldy coalition.
I don't know if Mahathir really represents what the opposition stood for in the past at all, but he was a vehicle to unseating the long-ruling governing coalition and the Najib government. So now we're going to see whether he can do more than that or whether there's going to be tension. Because Anwar is still probably the most popular person among opposition voters. He is free now, and this has the potential to be quite a complicated situation because the Prime Minister is someone who essentially oversaw his jailing before, but now he's made an alliance with him. I don't know how long the alliance will last.
OR: Do you see there being an orderly transfer of power to Anwar, as Mahathir has suggested?
Kurlantzick: I don't know how easy it will be. You have a guy who has long been used to power, and has operated very autocratically in the past, but he's saying that he's going to be a caretaker. It's a little bit unclear for how long. He's saying that Anwar's going to join parliament and then maybe get a cabinet post. He's unclear as to what exactly is going to happen after that.
It could be tumultuous because Mahathir doesn't really have a good history of handing power over to successors. His successor was Anwar. He sacked him and oversaw his jail case. And then after that he named another successor, and when that guy succeeded him, he spent his time railing against him. He does not have a great history with this.
Could he have changed? Could he have recognized he can only be Prime Minister for so long? He is old. The job might take a physical toll. His history does not show him to be someone that easily cedes power.
OR: What would it mean on the domestic and foreign policy sides to have Anwar at the helm? What happens if Mahathir decides to hold onto power for as long as his age and his health permit?
Kurlantzick: The latter going to be a major problem. Mahathir was the king-maker and the pivot point in the election, partly because Anwar went to jail. But his actual party, which provided the votes to the opposition to go over the top and take enough seats in parliament to win, actually won considerably less seats.
It's a coalition government and the person they chose to be Prime Minister was accepted by all but he doesn't actually have as many seats as anyone else. He doesn't command wide popular support, as far as I can tell, in the opposition. He just brought key votes to the table to win.