Democracy is under pressure these days, so the surprise opposition victory in Malaysia Wednesday is welcome news for the world and especially for that multi-ethnic Southeast Asian nation. A coalition led by 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad mobilized voters disgusted by corruption to throw out a ruling party that had governed since independence in 1957.
If it’s true that a democracy isn’t genuine until there’s a peaceful change of power through an election, then Malaysia now qualifies. The opposition coalition won 122 seats in the 222-member parliament compared with 79 for the ruling coalition.
The victory probably wouldn’t have been possible without Dr. Mahathir, who was able to persuade ethnic Malay voters to abandon the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) he led for 22 years. The Prime Minister he defeated, Najib Razak, was his protégé but became enmeshed in scandals. We’ve had differences with Dr. Mahathir over the years, but his return to politics to rescue the better parts of his legacy is his finest hour.
Dr. Mahathir deserves further credit for promising to turn over power to another former protégé, the long-time opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Mr. Anwar is currently in prison serving a five-year sentence on trumped-up charges. If he receives a royal pardon as expected, he could run for parliament in a by-election and be Prime Minister within two years.
Malaysia needs Mr. Anwar’s leadership to rebuild the country’s degraded institutions. The immediate dilemma will be how to clean up corruption without misusing the law to seek revenge on political opponents.
Only Mr. Anwar combines the political skill, belief in liberal values and moral authority to carry through the necessary reforms. There is no guarantee he will succeed, but his experience as a political prisoner starting in 1998 gives him credibility that no other leader has. Like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, he can set a new standard by forbearing revenge and letting the judiciary follow the law.
Malaysia’s racial divide will pose an even greater challenge. UMNO has governed through a system of racial preferences that favors the majority Malays over ethnic Chinese and Indian citizens. While paying lip service to national unity, UMNO’s leaders fostered Malay nationalism for their own benefit.
This has led to political rent-seeking by elites that hurt Malaysia’s competitiveness, and the country sank into what is sometimes called the slow-growth “middle-income trap.” Affirmative action and patronage created a culture of mediocrity, prompting many able Malaysians to move abroad for better opportunities.
As Malaysians moved into cities and became better educated, resentment over this system grew. The government initially brushed off the alleged disappearance of $4.5 billion from a state-owned fund 1MDB in 2015. But the scandal caused several UMNO leaders to defect to the opposition, including Dr. Mahathir.
The new government has a chance to forge a new consensus for reform. But some leaders will be tempted to return to UMNO’s methods of control, or to pander to Islamists and Malay nationalists. It’s crucial that Dr. Mahathir honors his promise to stand aside soon for Mr. Anwar, who is Malaysia’s best hope for fixing its broken politics.