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This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on May 14, 2018 - May 20, 2018

WHEN it became clear on the night of May 9 that Barisan Nasional had been voted out of power, celebrations broke out spontaneously around the country.

Fireworks were set off and people gathered in public spaces, waving party flags, cheering and honking to express their joy.

Six decades of unbroken rule under one political brand had fuelled a strong anti-government feeling among the populace. It did not help that in recent years, they were confronted with too many examples of egregious corruption, abuse of power and a toxic political culture that exploited racial and religious sentiments to divide and rule.

Now, the façade of stoic acceptance has been swept away.

Strong hints of the voters’ mood were seen weeks, even months, before the election, when pictures of large crowds at the campaign events of the opposition parties spread like wildfire via social media.

The stunning outcome of the 14th general election, in which Pakatan Harapan swept into power with a simple majority of 121 seats out of 222, while the once-unbeatable BN was reduced to 79 seats, was reminiscent of the mood in the 2008 polls.

In that election, the ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time and the opposition took five states.

Following the watershed event, there was a section of the electorate — who voted the then opposition alliance into power in Selangor, Perak and Kedah — who were gripped by uncertainty at having an untested coalition in government for the first time.

This time around, that feeling is conspicuous by its absence.

However, in Johor, The Edge’s Kamarul Azhar reports that there were no signs of public celebration at Pakatan’s conquest of the state of Umno’s birth.

Pakatan’s national tally includes eight seats won by its ally Parti Warisan Sabah. PAS took 18 seats, three fewer than in 2013, despite contesting in a record 160 parliamentary constituencies.

For PAS, this election has been something of a shakeout in its competition to be the voice of political Islam with Parti Amanah Negara, the progressive Islamic party formed by its splinter group. Amanah now has influence in the new federal government as a component of Pakatan with 11 seats in parliament while PAS has retreated to its traditional strongholds in Kelantan and Terengganu, where it is in control, and in Kedah, where it has the second biggest bloc of seats after Pakatan.

A telling sign of the Najib administration’s disconnect with the public mood is the series of missteps that his agents took that backfired, focusing Pakatan’s energy and generating sympathy for his opponents.

One was the Registrar of Societies’ (RoS) provisional ban on Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a day before parliament was dissolved. The ban, however, was set aside by the High Court.

The RoS also did not allow Pakatan to register its logo, which meant it could not be used to present a united front to voters in GE14.

The lightning speed at which the Anti-Fake News Act was passed and gazetted one month before the election meant only one thing to Pakatan — it was a clear attempt to muzzle a powerful medium for its election campaign.

These were only three of a string of actions that aimed to hobble BN’s challengers.

The Election Commission seemed to go out of its way to disenfranchise voters. The election reform movement Bersih 2.0 identified seven major violations in the redelineation exercise, which it said undermined the integrity of the electoral system.

These ranged from malapportionment to “crowning the loser”, partisan and ethnic gerrymandering, excluding 59% of parliamentary seats from redelineation, holding sham public inquiries into its redelineation exercise and not tabling the redelineation exercise for Sabah.

Another was the EC’s decision to set polling day on a Wednesday, inconveniencing out-of-state and overseas voters.

The obstacles that faced overseas voters were especially outlandish, and boomeranged spectacularly.

Unlike in previous elections, voting was not held at Malaysian embassies. Instead, ballots were couriered to those who registered as postal voters, and they were required to courier them back to Malaysia — a costly matter.

Further, Malaysian voters in Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei had to return home to vote. To make matters worse, many overseas voters received their ballots too late for them to be returned in time.

The voters’ reactions to these hurdles were an inspiring display of the indomitable human spirit — the harder the powers-that-be tried to thwart the people’s will, the more they tapped into a wellspring of creative, cooperative and even altruistic ideas to work around these blocks.

Some offered to pay for anyone who needed to return to vote. A group of people hired some 10 buses to transport Malaysian voters in Singapore to major towns in the peninsula. Companies, The Edge included, announced that leave would be granted for staff whose polling centres were outstation. Airlines offered low fares for voters.

Possibly the most dramatic were the efforts by overseas voters to get their ballots back in time. Voters in Australia, Europe, the US and Asia relied on volunteers to rush their votes back to the country in time to be counted.

But the people’s desire for a new beginning could not have found a more remarkable change agent than Mahathir, who created history on May 9 by defeating the world’s longest ruling coalition, which he had previously headed for 22 years.

The ironic aspects of this political saga are almost too amazing to believe. Mahathir, 92, was both the architect of modern Malaysia and the key figure behind the emasculation of all its democratic institutions — starting with the judiciary, through to the press and much else in between.

It was also during his watch as the fourth prime minister that the culture of corruption and cronyism became synonymous with Umno and Barisan Nasional.

Yet, the nation owes him the highest debt of gratitude for coming out of retirement to orchestrate the seemingly impossible task of melding a coherent alternative coalition that the nation’s diverse population could hang their hopes on for a national rejuvenation.

Not the least ironic is his rapprochement with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, whom Mahathir sacked as his deputy in 1998. In rewriting Malaysia’s history and his own role in it, Mahathir is setting the stage to finally hand over the prime minister’s post to his protégé turned nemesis and now ally.

As the country gets a fresh chance to be the best it can be, the people’s best wishes are with Mahathir and his team to build a future based on justice, integrity and fair play.


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