It has been more than 24 hours and the reality of a new government to lead Malaysia for the next five years has begun to sink in.
At 93, Mahathir Mohamad has become prime minister again and is the world’s oldest elected leader. His coalition Pakatan Harapan, which will seek to form government today, defeated caretaker prime minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional coalition, effectively ending six-decades of one-party rule.
Foreign press touted the results as a “shock comeback victory” while many Malaysians were expecting nothing less than a win, after a period of scandals that embroiled Najib and his party Umno, effectively putting Malaysia in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
“It appears that Najib’s unpopularity, Mahathir’s opposition leadership and the decades-long effort of civil society groups like Bersih have finally broken BN’s hold on power,” Thomas B. Pepinsky, associate professor in the government department at Cornell University, says in an interview with The Other.
“It could also be that economic insecurity systematically drove voters to the opposition, but it is hard to know how much this contributed.”
Bridget Welsh, associate professor of political science at John Cabot University, believes there were a series of push factors that led to BN’s defeat.
These are: anger towards Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor who appeared to be using office for personal interests than for the country; economic hardships especially from cost of living and GST; international shaming of Malaysia being excessive and untenable; and abuse of power in 1MDB and through the misuse of the Election Commission.
“The pull factor was towards Mahathir, who was known to the older generations and a ‘safe landing’ for most Malaysians, especially Malays and the Umno traditional base,” she tells The Other.
Welsh adds that the image of a 92-year-old Mahathir seen “sacrificing himself for the greater good” inspired many Malaysians to vote for a change in government.
A case of self-sabotage?
Just days before the May 9 contest, Najib sat with Bloomberg to discuss the election. He confidently said none of his opponents could topple him, based on experiences in the previous national polls.
“They couldn’t shake me. The support base was strong. I appear to be mild in my temperament, but I have a strong resilience in me,” he says.
Najib added that his party was “reasonably confident” of a good result, citing the “motley collection of parties” that form PH.
“That is not saying we will win with a huge majority, no I am not going to predict that, but I am going to say that we are reasonably sanguine about the result,” he said.
Hisomuddin Bakar, founder of research house Ilham Centre, finds it odd that the political strategists in the BN camp failed to capture the sentiment on the ground.
“They have so many agencies who report to the prime minister, such as the Special Branch and Jasa, yet none of them detected voter sentiment?
“I’m not sure why these agencies did not reveal that Najib’s approval rating was very low and that the grassroots support was close to non-existent,” he tells The Other in an interview.
Hisomuddin speculates they deliberately hid that Umno was on the threshold of defeat for their “own survival”.
“I met all the propaganda agencies that work for Putrajaya during my time surveying voters before the election. These are well-funded bodies, so there is no way they didn't have the manpower or technical skills to miss this.
“When I met them, they told me, ‘We will get a two-thirds majority’. I was shocked. I think they told Najib the wrong points and Najib, as their general, strategised wrongly.
“All those mammoth billboards of him and Barisan along the highways, the handouts, those were signs of a disaster. It got a lot of people angry and look, voters punished him,” he says.
“This punishment also came from Umno members and supporters, too.”
When numbers don't paint the entire picture
Hisomuddin’s Ilham Centre were among the few research houses that polled Malaysians and predicted the outcome of the election. His was one of the two which came close to the exact result.
Ilham predicted Pakatan could secure about 100 out 165 parliamentary seats in the peninsula, saying the chances of winning Johor, Penang and Selangor were high. It also predicted that PAS would only win seven parliamentary seats, mainly in the east coast.
The Election Commission has yet to reveal the official results, saying it cannot make any statements until results have been validated. But local reports say Barisan won 79 seats; Pakatan, 113; PAS, 18; and Others, 12.
Hisomuddin says gains made by PAS were commendable, adding that he didn’t factor in a fresher interpretation of the maligned three-corner fight.
“From our observers, in states such as Kelantan and Terengganu, the Umno vote split into two. One for Umno, the other for Pakatan or PPBM. But the PAS votes stayed intact.
“On a state seats level, Pahang and Kedah benefited PAS from a three-corner fight,” he says. PPBM is the acronym for Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.
Hisomuddin believes the original hypothesis of Barisan winning in three-corner fights – drawing from examples of byelections held in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar, as well as the state elections in Sarawak – were untenable.
“They failed to factor in Mahathir and PPBM. The day Mahathir took over as commander in chief of the opposition, the strategy was no longer applicable.”
He adds that PAS’s huge number of candidates worked against Barisan, especially Umno, as the strategy backfired. “It cannibalised on each other. So in areas with weak Umno candidates, PAS gained,” says Hisomuddin.
Welsh says one of the variables that the polls failed to factor in were the Barisan voters.
“Many stayed home,” she says, “the polls also overestimated Barisan support as a result of the ‘government boost’ factor and underestimated how reserved people were to express their views.”
The campaign itself created a momentum not capture by polling, she adds.
The end of communal politics?
Pundits and analysts reported in local and foreign press believe the rout of Barisan was made possible by a “Malaysian tsunami”. The phrase is a play on “Chinese tsunami” which Najib used to describe the rejection of the Chinese towards the ruling coalition in the last election.
Nevertheless, this election saw Barisan being decimated further, winning only 79 parliamentary seats. In the peninsula, Umno captured 47 seats while MCA salvaged one and MIC, two. Gerakan was eliminated.
“It’s not clear that here is much of Barisan left after MCA and MIC have been so thrashed in the election,” says Pepinsky, who believes its up to Umno to pick up the pieces.
“It will be interesting to see if PAS and Umno find a common cause as Malay-based opposition parties facing a multi-ethnic ruling coalition.”
But Pepinsky was sceptical over improved ethnic politics in the country.
“I have long thought ethnic politics was the single dominant factor shaping Malaysian politics. I do not think that has changed, but I think that Malaysia’s ethnic order will need to adjust,” he says.
Pepinsky predicts figuring out how a Malay-nationalist party, PPBM, coexists within the otherwise explicitly non-ethnic coalition – even if non-Malays form the majority of the supporters of that coalition – may take some time.
Lee Hwok Aun, senior researcher at Singapore-based Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, believes ethnic-based politics has not vanished but has “inexorably changed”.
“The Barisan model has been cracking and has now definitely crumbled. A new mode is taking shape but communal interests will continually have to be represented and negotiated, but not on clear partisan lines,” he tells The Other in an interview.
Lee, however, says ethic policies are another matter, as they are “extensive and embedded”.
“But reforms are necessary to make the Bumiputera preferential programmes more effective, coherent and focused, so that graduation and exit plans of these policies can begin to be systematically formulated,” he says.
So what of the future?
Pakatan Harapan has pledged 10 reforms in 100 days, one of is the removal of the goods and services tax (GST), which Najib introduced in 2015.
Fund managers have raised concern over the move. Aninda Mitra, senior sovereign analyst at US-based BNY Mellon Investment Management, says he can’t “see realistically how they can unwind the GST”.
“It contributes as much as around one quarter of total federal government revenue and cannot be easily substituted by other revenue sources,” he says in a statement.
Lee says the new government will have to show tangible results, “which they can start by zero-rating a broader range of items”.
“I would like to see expanded tax revenue for state governments, alongside more meaningful federalism. In other words, more transfer of jurisdictions to state governments, reducing federal expenditure but also augmenting state revenue sources,” he says.
The election allows Pakatan to administer and the lead the country for the next five years. Aside from the cabinet line-up meeting today, on the cards is the release of Anwar Ibrahim, who is expected to take over the reins from Mahathir.
But, in the interim, the question is what kind of change will a Mahathir-led government bring?
“Ironically, Mahathir has ‘saved’ democracy by inspiring a broad people’s power response and reinforcing the sense that individuals can make a difference,” says Welsh.