The surprise opposition victory in Malaysia’s general election on Wednesday marks an extraordinary comeback not only for Mahathir Mohamad, the 92-year-old former prime minister, but also for democracy in Asia.
Liberals have been in retreat across the continent for years in the face of rising authoritarianism and extremism, and the surviving democracies — especially in south and south-east Asia — have been looking increasingly fragile.
But now Malaysian voters have decisively rejected Najib Razak, the prime minister who was once Mr Mahathir’s protégé but fell out with him over the 1MDB corruption scandal, and pushed the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and its coalition out of power for the first time since independence in 1957.
This popular revolt at the ballot box goes against the recent political trend in Asia. After a flowering of democracy — including the UN-organised Cambodian election of 1993, the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia after the 1997-98 financial crisis and the Myanmar victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in 2015 — the region’s liberals have suffered a catalogue of reversals.
Myanmar appears to be firmly in the grip of the army again and its Buddhist government has condoned the killing and forced exile of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims. Bangladeshi democracy has all but collapsed. Thailand is under military rule. Vietnam remains a Communist state. Hun Sen in Cambodia, backed by China, has reinstated a brutal dictatorship that tolerates no opposition. Under Xi Jinping, China itself is in the grip of its most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong. Indonesia, and now perhaps Malaysia, are among the few beacons of freedom.
After the election of Donald Trump in the US and the rise of rightwing populists in Europe, perhaps the world should be accustomed to the unexpected in electoral politics.
Yet the Malaysian drama is all the more extraordinary because of the record of its protagonist Mr Mahathir. He is no liberal democrat. In fact, in the 1990s he was one of the leading lights of the “Asian values” school of thought that explicitly rejected western ideas and respect for individual freedoms and espoused an authoritarian style of government for the supposed collective good.
The future, not least the next few days, is therefore uncertain. Mr Mahathir has promised to arrange a pardon for one-time opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and to install him as prime minister, even though it was Mr Mahathir who sacked and persecuted Mr Anwar (now in jail for the second time on dubious sodomy charges) in the first place.
The election suggests, however, that public opinion in Malaysia has decisively changed. In spite of shameless gerrymandering of constituency boundaries to try to guarantee Mr Najib’s control of parliament — the latest round of changes were made less than six weeks before polling day — voters have expressed their frustration with corruption and with the complacency of the Malay political elite who have run the country since independence.
It does not matter that voters expressed their will by choosing Mr Mahathir, the founding father and most prominent member of that very elite.
Because Malaysia still retains the structure of a real democracy — even if the democratic spirit has been sadly lacking for many years and the government has never previously lost a general election — Malaysia’s citizens have finally been able to reassert their right to change the way the place is run.
Get alerts on Malaysia when a new story is published