The Irish Times view on Malaysia’s election: a plea for new politics

Voters stand up for civil freedoms and an end to corruption

In a stunning and exhilarating election Malaysians have thrown out the governing coalition led by Najib Razak and given an overall majority to the competing alliance led by the 92-year-old veteran Mahatir Mohamed. Photograph: Ahmad Yusni/EPA

In a stunning and exhilarating election Malaysians have thrown out the governing coalition led by Najib Razak and given an overall majority to the competing alliance led by the 92-year-old veteran Mahatir Mohamed. Photograph: Ahmad Yusni/EPA

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In a stunning and exhilarating election Malaysians have thrown out the governing coalition led by Najib Razak and given an overall majority to the competing alliance led by the 92-year-old veteran Mahathir Mohamed. The first victory of the opposition since independence from Britain in 1957, this is a remarkable example of people-power channelled through the voting booths. It expresses a widespread desire for an alternative form of politics freer from corruption and more representative of Malaysia’s vibrant multicultural society.

Mahathir was prime minister from 1983 to 2003, when he put the country on a determined development path guided by his dominant personality and increasingly arbitrary approach to opponents. The Barisan Nasional coalition he then led is based largely on the Malay population, which makes up two thirds of the total and is dedicated to advancing their interests. Opposition forces are based largely on the minority but powerful Chinese community along with smaller Indian ones.

In this exciting period of change, media and civil society freedoms have been reasserted alongside democratic renewal

This communalist politics became more and more prone to corruption, cronyism and a crackdown on freedoms under Mahathir’s successor, Najib. Huge sums went unaccountably missing from the state investment funds. Mahathir’s decision to come out of retirement in protest galvanised the opposition and evidently caught the political imagination of a more sophisticated electorate in what is a historic shift of voter affiliations.

United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party president and chairman of the Barisan National (National Front coalition) Najib Razak speaks during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photograph: EPA
"This communalist politics became more and more prone to corruption, cronyism and a crackdown on freedoms under Mahathir’s successor, Najib Razak." File photograph: EPA

His new government faces immense challenges of delivering on promises to lead the way towards a different kind of politics. Political leadership has revolved around dynastic families intimately involved in this dramatic transition. Popular pressure ensured Najib was not allowed leave the country after resisting last week’s election outcome and will now ensure he faces charges of corruption in office. In this exciting period of change, media and civil society freedoms have been reasserted alongside democratic renewal. Malaysia is setting valuable precedents about how to do this peacefully and without violence.

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