Recycled Elites and Regime Change

Malaysia’s Pakatan Haparan (Alliance of Hope, henceforth Harapan) coalition unexpectedly defeated the Barisan National (National Front, henceforth BN) coalition government in the May 2018 general election. This David and Goliath contest defied the predictions of seasoned political observers and leading opinion polls. Having governed for 61 years, the BN electoral authoritarian coalition had benefitted from the advantages of state resources and entrenched incumbency. The perennial redrawing of electoral boundaries accorded disproportionate weightage to rural and semi-rural dwellers who make up 30% of the total population but control more than half of parliamentary seats. Rural and semi-rural voters make up the traditional support base of UMNO (United Malay National Organisation) – the dominant Malay-based party in the long-serving BN coalition government.

The BN’s vote buying strategy, generous welfare payments and salary hikes to civil servants may well have worked in 2018 had Malaysians not become increasingly repulsed by its crude intent. Repetitive vote buying had culminated in Malaysians feeling a profound sense of shame with being treated in such transactional terms. Yet, in 2018, many Malaysians shrewdly pocketed what was dished out to them but did not necessarily feel obliged to vote for the incumbent BN – in a cynical but sophisticated understanding that much of the vote buying cash transfers were derived from public funds such as the regressive and unpopular goods and services tax (GST) levied on the public.

Like the ‘shy Republicans’ who would not admit to pollsters that they supported Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election, there were many shy Harapan supporters, particularly Malays, who did not publicly acknowledge how they would vote. This reticence may also have been due to the substantial number of ‘fence-sitters’, many of whom gravitated towards the Harapan coalition just before polling day. They are likely to have been swayed by Harapan’s deft campaigning and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s skilful election narrative which centred on the BN government’s economic mismanagement and Prime Minister Najib Razak’s moral illegitimacy arising from the colossal 1MDB corruption scandal. In election rallies attended by thousands, the former Prime Minister repeatedly denounced Najib as a crook (penyagak), liar (penipu) and thief (penyamun) that had to be removed from office if the country was to be ‘saved’ from ruin.

Harapan’s existentialist narrative (saving the country from ruin) was countered by UMNO’s fear-mongering directed primarily at the dominant indigenous Malay community. Malays were warned that an Harapan electoral victory would result in the demise of their constitutionally enshrined indigenous rights and privileges, the status of Islam as the national religion would be undermined and the Chinese would comprehensively dominate – in economic and political terms. The BN’s fear narrative was countered by Harapan’s narrative of hope for a ‘New Malaysia’ – based on citizenship rights, democratic institutions and accountable governance. This inclusive narrative was effectively propagated by ‘recycled elites’ such as Mahathir Mohamad.

Since the reformasi (reform) movement that sprang up in the late 1990s, the opposition coalition has worked in synergy with democratic civil society. Malaysia’s 2018 ‘regime change’ demonstrates that it can be achieved not only through mass protest and rebellion from below but also from electoral contests driven by opposition politicians in coalition with progressive civil society actors and social movements.

Democratic transitions are rarely ‘one-shot’ outcomes but more often than not a culmination of repeated electoral attempts, with outcomes strongly shaped by previous attempts. As such, Malaysia’s 2018 breakthrough election can be better appreciated when placed within the context of previous highly competitive general elections – in 1999, 2008 and the ‘near win’ general election in 2013. In 1999, the BN lost about half of the Malay vote, its traditional support base, and in the 2008 general election, it lost its two-thirds majority in the Federal parliament. More dramatically, in 2013 the BN lost the popular vote to the opposition coalition. These competitive elections contributed to substantive opposition rethinking and recalibration and staying ‘on the pulse’ of public sentiments. It is worth noting that between the competitive elections in 1999, 2008 and 2013, Malaysia’s democratic civil society boldly ‘carried the torch’ by organising protests, campaigns and forums – energising democratic norms.

Strategies adopted by opposition parties and democratic civil society matter greatly in countering the electoral manipulations of electoral authoritarian regimes. The Harapan coalition shrewdly capitalised upon its political bases within the Federal states of Selangor and Penang that had been controlled by component parties for several terms. These dynamic states are commonly perceived as the political and economic ‘crown jewels’ of the country. Governing these opposition states had undoubtedly enhanced the opposition coalitions’ governance credentials and performance legitimacy. Harapan’s governance record at the state level, coupled with the stature of ‘recycled elites’ such as Mahathir Mohamad, helped disrupt the BN’s narrative – that only they had the experience to govern the country effectively.

Authoritarian regime narratives and legitimacy can be undermined when intra-elite tensions are not contained – resulting in disillusioned elites exiting the party. Intra-elite splits provide the political space for democratic transition. It is worth noting that UMNO had suffered from numerous intra-elite divisions but never as serious as the intra-party split triggered by the 1MDB corruption scandal. The sacking of senior Ministers and civil servants who dared to question Prime Minister Najib’s role in the corruption scandal led to the formation of splinter parties.

Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim (leader of the PKR, short for Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Peoples Justice Party) fit the mould of ‘recycled elites’ – politicians of standing that are expected to have digested past political and policy errors. As former autocrats turned democrats, they are saddled with the baggage of their political past which will periodically return to haunt them. Anwar’s attempts at sanitising his Deputy Prime Ministership in an authoritarian government has been tempered somewhat by his status as the founder of the reformasi movement. Anwar’s complicity in promoting state-led salafi Islamisation during his tenure as Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in the 1980s and 1990s sits uncomfortably with Malaysians intent on preserving the secular constitutional underpinnings and political stability of the multi-religious post-colonial state. Having languished for more than ten years in jail, Anwar’s record of authoritarian complicity has faded somewhat. Similarly, Mahathir’s retirement from the Prime Ministership in 2003 is likely to have tempered his former strongman persona.

92 years of age during the 2018 general election, Mahathir’s political incarnation could not have been possible without Malaysians, both within the establishment and the general public, believing that his return to public office was imperative to avert the country from impending calamity. Collectively, Mahathir and Anwar have played a monumental role in reshaping the course of Malaysia’s political history since the 1960s. They have, paradoxically, been defenders of the political status quo as well as its most ardent critics.

During the election campaign, Mahathir’s economic nationalist credentials and robust economic achievements as Prime Minister were trumpeted. His government had nationalised key foreign companies operating in strategic sectors of the economy. Malaysians were reminded that Mahathir had adopted the ‘Look East Policy’ based on emulating the state-led developmentalism of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – countries that had catapulted to developed economy status within a relatively brief period of time. Many Malaysians remember with pride the Mahathir administration’s stabilisation of the battered economy following the implementation of unorthodox capital control policies during the East Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. These unorthodox policies had saved Malaysia from austerity measures dictated by international financial agencies.

Harapan’s strategy of highlighting the economic achievements of the Mahathir administration served to illuminate the gross economic mismanagement and unbridled culture of patronage that had led to the 1MDB mega-corruption scandal. Multi-billion dollar infrastructure contracts and controversial real-estate ventures awarded to foreign entities without oversight invoked fears that Malaysia was on the road to becoming another Third World banana republic. Saddled with mounting national debt, unprecedented corruption scandals and regional insecurity arising from the South China Sea territorial dispute, Malaysians began to look favourably at past political leaders with proven economic and nationalist credentials to reclaim the nation’s compromised sovereignty.

Mahathir’s leadership of the Harapan coalition was predicated on the assumption that his party Bersatu (or Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia or United Indigenous Party of Malaysia) would be able to attract enough semi-rural and urban Malay voters away from UMNO in order to win the 2018 general election. Yet, this assumption has since been challenged following the post-election assessments of the 2018 voting trends and estimations that only about 30% of Malays voted for Harapan in the general election. It cannot be denied, however, that the ‘Mahathir factor’ did generate a critical shift towards Harapan and helped swing disillusioned UMNO voters towards the Islamist opposition party PAS (Parti Islam Malaysia). In view of rampant gerrymandering, Harapan needed a high voter turnout in 2018 to defeat the BN. Mahathir was expected to serve as the critical game changer that would generate the high voter turnout to get Harapan past the ‘finish line’. Mahathir was also expected to mitigate the likelihood of bureaucratic establishment sabotage against the newly elected government.

Regime Change or Regime Reform?

In liberal democracies, elections are not about regime change but changing the party/coalition parties in government. However, in electoral authoritarian regimes, elections are often about changing the regime as well as authoritarian institutions. Malaysia’s 2018 ‘breakthrough’ election has been described as regime change but, as this article suggests, the breakthrough was strongly driven by a reformist agenda led by disillusioned ‘insiders’ and ‘recycled elites’.

Fears that the newly elected Harapan government may be replicating the BN’s ‘winner takes all’ modus operandi have been fuelled by the appointment of Harapan loyalists to key positions in the security forces, judiciary and government-linked companies. Harapan has also failed to implement many promises outlined in its 2018 election manifesto within the promised 100 days. Whilst unpopular policies such as the goods and services tax and exorbitant infrastructure projects driven by foreign entities have been cancelled, delayed or renegotiated, politically sensitive reforms pertaining to the Malay language and rights and patronage economic practices have been held in abeyance. Resistance to the new government comes from conservative ethno-nationalist and Islamists who have been quick to whip up Malay and Muslim insecurities and religious concerns. Conservative Islamists are intent on preserving Malay and Islamic dominance and have mobilised against tentative human rights initiatives of the Harapan government. Suffice to say, conservative Islamists and Malay ethno-nationalists are inclined to reject the post-colonial constitution, rule of law principle and equal citizenship rights for women and non-Muslims. They have shown scant interest in addressing systemic corruption and related patronage practices.

Months after the 2018 electoral breakthrough, intra-party and inter-coalition tensions erupted within the new elected government. Harapan has been accused of not being reformist enough, failing to make good on many of its election manifesto promises and rekindling the BN’s system of authoritarian and patronage politics. The prospects of democratic backsliding in the ‘New Malaysia’ are likely if those aligned with the former BN regime escalate ethnic and religious tensions, deepen intra-coalition divisions and if Haparan’s governance reform momentum dissipates.

A/Professor Lily Zubaidah Rahim teaches political Islam and Southeast Asian Politics at the Department of Government & International Relations, University of Sydney. Her recent publications include The Politics of Islamism (2018) and The Limits of Singapore’s Authoritarian Development State (2019). This article is a shortened version of ‘Malaysia’s breakthrough election: Dynamics of democratic learning and coalition building’, published in Journal of Arab & Muslim Media Research, Vol.11, No.2, 2018. Lily is writing a book on governance reform in the ‘New Malaysia’.