Mahathir Mohamad, reacts as he sits for a photograph in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photographer: Ian Teh/Bloomberg)

Malaysia's Election Earthquake Is Rich With Irony

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(Bloomberg) -- After six decades of uninterrupted rule by one political bloc, Malaysia's democracy showed it can work — ousting that bloc and the nation's incumbent leader in a seismic shift. The irony is that it took a onetime scourge of democracy to come back from retirement to topple the party that ruled since independence from Great Britain in 1957 — the same party he led as prime minister for 22 years.

That man, Mahathir Mohamad, declared in his 90s that his new mission in life was to oust Prime Minister Najib Razak and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. They had become corrupt and too addicted to power, he claimed. Never mind that as prime minister Mahathir did much to centralize power. Never mind that Najib's career was nurtured by none other than Mahathir.

Najib claimed the opposition, now on the cusp of taking control of government, is a motley collection of parties. True enough. That's how parliaments work.

How would the opposition rule? Like Mahathir last time around or more freewheeling? How would leadership issues within the opposition resolve themselves, chiefly the relationship between Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim, now languishing in prison? (Put there the first time by Mahathir.) What will be the administrative priorities of an opposition that probably doubted it could ever win?

It almost doesn't matter for now, because first the nation and the world can savor that this system, constructed on theoretical possibilities, has been shown to work. Gerrymandering and crackdowns on the press can't suppress political and economic tides indefinitely. Ironies abound. Nobody in the media in the 1990s, when I worked in Malaysia, would have considered Mahathir a friend of a free and vibrant press.

Barisan Nasional had struggled in recent years and, as a result, had become more dictatorial and more dependent on xenophobic appeals to rural Malays and political Islam. How the opposition functions in government and what the role of smaller parties looks like is anyone's guess. And all this assumes, of course, that the government allows the opposition to take office. There's never been a change of power in Malaysia, since independence. The party was the government and the government was the party.

Not to get completely swept up in the moment: Over the longer run, Malaysia's economic and political direction will be governed by interest rates and fiscal and regulatory policy, just like most countries. Mahathir himself isn't exactly a political novice. And there are broader macroeconomic forces also at work, including China's relative economic strength, what happens with global trade and developments in technology.

The economic and social distortions caused by the existing regime's preferences for powerful Malays, members of the majority ethnic group, may not go away soon. They were cemented during Mahathir's previous tour of duty.

Malaysia faces its share of challenges in this new era. And with a former prime minister returning to power, it's fair to wonder how much will really change. There's also no getting away from the fact that the once-unstoppable Barisan Nasional has lost the election. That's already a huge change.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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