Earlier this week, the opposition coalition in Malaysia pulled off a dramatic upset, ending the ruling coalition’s grip on political power, which has lasted since Malaysia’s independence from Britain. Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister who returned, in his 90s, to lead an unwieldy opposition coalition, was sworn in as prime minister again today, after meeting with the country’s king.
But the election, although shattering in Malaysian politics, raises several questions immediately. First, can the unwieldy opposition alliance hold together and actually govern? The opposition turned to Mahathir as its leader as he came out of retirement, and after the longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed. Anwar and Mahathir have a long and complicated relationship—Mahathir was prime minister when Anwar was jailed previously, on dubious charges—but Mahathir has said he will push for a full pardon of Anwar, and for Anwar to soon run for an MP seat and join the government. For now, Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, a veteran opposition politician, will likely be a deputy prime minister.
How will these figures all get along, given historic enmities? In addition, the opposition is a coalition with multiple parties, many of which have starkly different views on key questions of economic and foreign policy. They were united largely by their desire to end the ruling coalition’s power and to rid politics of former Prime Minister Najib tun Razak. Can they work together? Will Mahathir eventually step aside as prime minister for Anwar, as he has promised? Many of Mahathir’s core supporters love him, but share little in the way of viewpoints about politics and Malaysian culture as supporters of Anwar and his party. Will that chasm matter once the coalition is governing?
Second, how will Mahathir’s return to office affect Malaysia’s relations with China, which have grown noticeably warmer under Najib’s tenure? In the aftermath of the election, Mahathir announced that the new government might “renegotiate several agreements that had been struck with China,” according to CNBC. During the campaign, Mahathir had criticized Najib for pushing Malaysia’s economic and strategic relations too close to Beijing and it is likely the new government will apply strict scrutiny to several major Belt and Road Initiative projects, such as a rail line planned in peninsular Malaysia. Yet during his previous time as prime minister, Mahathir often showed that his harsh words toward many foreign states—including the United States and the United Kingdom—concealed a pragmatic willingness to cooperate on economic and strategic issues.
Third, will the new government immediately step up investigations and/or pursue indictments in the 1MDB case? On the campaign trail, the coalition that now rules Malaysia vowed to make 1MDB investigations a priority, and there is certainly a high possibility that the new government will pursue a broad range of charges in the alleged corruption case, including possibly against Najib and his close allies. The government may also cooperate more closely with foreign governments investigating the 1MDB scandal, which had complained of stonewalling from the Najib government. Mahathir has said that Najib will have to face whatever “consequences” come from Najib’s time in office, but when Mahathir was prime minister, he was hardly an advocate for transparency at the highest levels of government, and Malaysia has no real tradition of investigating former prime ministers, who usually receive laurels and titles.
We will have much more coverage of the impact of the election this week and next week.