from Asia Unbound

Malaysia Achieved a Democratic Victory—But Don’t Expect Its Success to Spread

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gestures beside Wan Azizah, the wife of a jailed opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim, during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on May 10, 2018. Lai Seng Sin/Reuters

July 2, 2018

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gestures beside Wan Azizah, the wife of a jailed opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim, during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on May 10, 2018. Lai Seng Sin/Reuters
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In early May, Malaysia was stunned by the victory, in national elections, of the opposition coalition, led by Mahathir Mohamad and essentially (from jail), longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Although some journalists had, in the run-up to the election, noted that the opposition’s support appeared to be cresting, in the wake of years of massive corruption allegations against former Prime Minister Najib tun Razak and his allies, the win still came largely as a shock. Najib had governed increasingly autocratically, including by detaining many prominent opponents, and his coalition—which had ruled Malaysia since independence—also benefitted from control of state media, massive gerrymandering, and the ability to hand out large amounts of cash in the run-up to election day, a strategy it had used repeatedly in the past to ensure victory.

Yet despite these obstacles, the Malaysia opposition won—and Najib and his coalition (eventually) conceded, marking the country’s first democratic transfer of power. Yet democrats throughout the rest of Southeast Asia, where many elections are due this year and next, should not take too much heart from Malaysia’s example. For more on why they should not, see my new piece in the Globalist.

More on:

Southeast Asia

Malaysia

Cambodia

Thailand

Philippines

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