An election of hope
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An election of hope

Malaysian voters finally did it! So did the opposition coalition known as Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), which on Wednesday managed to overcome racial differences and break the six-decade dominance of the United Malay National Organisation (Umno) at the polls.

The shifting political winds, touted as the first real change since the country gained independence from British rule in 1957, was indeed a shock to political observers. Some branded the victory a "people's tsunami", while Dr Mahathir Mohamad's victory is seen as a game changer for the country that ranks as one of Southeast Asia's most vibrant economies.

According to Bernama, the state news agency, the Alliance of Hope opposition won 113 seats in parliament, one more than it needs to form a new government. Dr Mahathir called on the Malaysian monarch to swear him in by 5pm (local time) and the ceremony was finally held, although a few hours later.

Of course, some may have doubted if the change would have been made had the autocrat-turned-progressive Dr Mahathir not decided to accept the challenge and return to politics. Much of this had to do with his charisma, which enabled him to pose as a challenger to the party he once ruled, humiliating Najib Razak, his former protégé, in the process. The victory makes Dr Mahathir at 92 the world's oldest elected leader.

It's clear the road ahead will be paved with various obstacles for Dr Mahathir, who is known for his iron-fisted approach when serving as premier from 1981-2003. It will be interesting to see how he handles his Pakatan Harapan coalition, which comprises four parties including Malaysia's largest ethnic-Chinese party.

Also of interest will be how he attempts to fulfil his campaign promises as he balances populism and reform. The former authoritarian leader has also vowed to help restore his former nemesis Anwar Ibrahim, who is now in jail, as he strives to heal national divisions that for decades have held back Malaysian politics.

Yet no one can question the aspirations of the Malaysian people, who for years had been fed up with outgoing premier Najib, long embroiled in a massive corruption scandal involving state fund 1MDB that has battered Malaysia's international standing. With a series of denials, Mr Najib aggressively cracked down on his opponents, thus making matters worse. Another policy move that made his administration unpopular was the introduction of a goods-and-services tax that drastically raised prices and inflation, said to be the fastest pace in a decade, further heightening public anger in this country of 31.9 million.

Determined to effect change, the determined Malaysian voters showed the unpopular Mr Najib the door in a painful and expensive lesson for the politician.

There is no denying that the results of Wednesday's poll, which saw 14 million people cast their ballots, was a huge win for democracy in Southeast Asia, where generals and authoritarian leaders often lock up opponents and stifle free speech.

This week, Malaysian voters have set an example to the world, and to their Asean neighbours, that change through democratic means is possible.

But there are more lessons for leaders in the region from this week's vote. It's time they were aware that, no matter how strong they may be, they could find themselves in the same shoes as Mr Najib one day.

That lesson is particularly directed at those leaders who keep letting down their citizens by not clearing up corruption scandals, or who renege on their promises.

The events of this week should tell them they can no longer ignore people power. A "people's tsunami" of the kind seen in Malaysia could have a domino effect that may one day strike them full in the face.

As mentioned earlier, the political road ahead may not be easy for Dr Mahathir and his coalition, or for the Malaysian people. Yet his poll victory, which represents peaceful change, is an excellent start.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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