The recent resignation of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the ensuring political turmoil in Malaysia is a step backwards for the country’s democracy. Indeed, initial indicators are that a lack of transparency, elite maneuvering with little public input, and shady backroom politics to form a new government will likely predominate. This is bad for democracy. Although Malaysia has been trending towards more open and responsive governance over the past few years, this is likely a step backwards. The country must now answer the question whether its politicians will be responsive to the concerns Malaysian citizens expressed during its last election.
The problem lies in the elite maneuvering that could weaken Malaysia’s political openness and responsiveness to the Malaysian public. In a well-functioning democracy, governments must be responsive to the population and allow citizens to formulate, signify, and have their preferences weighed (Dahl, 1972). In this case, Malaysians have remained adamant that UMNO corruption should not be overlooked. It was the anti-corruption campaign directed against UMNO that lifted Mahatir back into the driver’s seat of Malaysian politics in 2018.
Mahatir, who is 94, handed his resignation to the king with little prior suggestion that such a step was in the offing. It now appears that Bersatu party president, Muhyiddin Yassin, will become the new prime minister after the king rejected calls for a Parliamentary vote for a new leader. Muhyiddin, 72, is a Malay nationalist that draws support from the former ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Islamist party PAS. He previously served under Prime Minister Najib Razak before being fired for criticizing Najib’s handling of a corruption investigation.
Mahatir is unlikely to abandon the political scene, however, despite his shock resignation that sent ripples through the Malaysian political establishment. Indeed, analysts are still attempting to decipher what political calculation may have been behind his move. Nevertheless, It’s unlikely the wily politician did not consider his next steps. For 22 years, Mahatir served as prime minister with Anwar Ibrahim as his deputy. The relationship eventually soured with Mahatir ultimately firing him in 1998. Anwar was jailed on what were widely regarded as politically motivated charges of corruption and sodomy. Trumped up charges of corruption against the opposition, or in this case a political rival, is a staple of undemocratic regimes. Mahatir then retired in 2003, although he continued to involve himself in the nation’s political discourse.
Eventually Mahatir decided to return to politics and to ally himself with his longtime opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan. In 2018 he returned to power alongside both Anwar and Muhyiddin. In what was an unexpected electoral victory, Mahatir ousted the previous prime minister, Najib Razak. Najib is on trial after being charged with corruption as part of the 1MDB scandal in which millions of dollars from a government wealth fund went missing. Part of the new deal between Mahatir and Anwar, however, included an eventual handover of power to Anwar, which seems to have in part precipitated the current crisis. It turns out the rapprochement was not complete.
For now, it is Muhyiddin that has emerged victorious, overshadowing the two politicians that have long dominated the spotlight in Malaysian politics. As Muhyiddin establishes his cabinet, the key question will be whether he addresses public concerns about not appointing UMNO politicians that are tainted by corruption allegations. The problem for Muhyiddin is that it’s likely he owes his elevation to the prime minister position based partly on gaining UMNO support. His careful balancing of maintaining their support will determine whether he’s able to keep the Parliamentary majority in place.
But it was also the move away from Malay nationalist politics that many around the world heralded as a new, more democratic Malaysia. The coalition that came to power in 2018 with Mahatir at the helm also included a group of ethnically Chinese and other minority politicians in positions of prominence for the first time. Indeed, the attention on Malaysia’s current political confusion is in stark contrast to the positive trend towards democracy that international observers have highlighted recently. Earlier this year, before Mahatir’s resignation, Malaysia was given its highest score ever on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2019. Overall it scored high enough to rank 43rd out of 167 countries surveyed. Although it scored just below that needed to be categorized as a “full democracy”, it’s improvement since 2006 was a rare bright spot in an otherwise overall decline of worldwide democratic practices.
In Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, they describe indicators of authoritarian behavior to include attempts to undermine elections and baseless accusations of rivals as criminals. Both of these indicators have been present in Malaysian politics, with the accusations against Anwar being prominent among them. It now appears that a calculation by Mahatir to prevent Anwar’s rise is yet another example of elite political maneuvering resulting in a government that the Malaysian people must accept. Despite its positive development in instituting democratic practices over the past decade, the current crisis shows Malaysia still has progress to make to consolidate democratic norms that will prevent politicians from taking decisions only meant to benefit their political career or narrow party interests.
Image Credit: Getty Images
Dahl, Robert A. Polyarchy: participation and opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.
Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown, 2018.