Malaysian National Election — A Pivot away from Autocracy

On May 9, 2018, the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), the opposition coalition in Malaysia, pulled off a surprising upset in the national elections with Mahathir Mohamad being elected prime minister. This election marks the first time in 61 years that the ruling party—the Barisan Nasional Coalition has been defeated. Ultimately, the opposition won 115 seats with 112 being needed to form a government.

The historic win comes as the Malaysian government has been beset with cronyism and corruption. Government officials have been accused of money diversion, gerrymandering, and other election-related crimes. In addition, the ruling party has been slipping in popularity with citizens in recent elections. In 2013, the opposition party won the popular vote, but failed to win enough seats to unseat the prime minister and form a government.

Malaysia, a constitutional monarchy by design, has been on the cusp of slipping into the throws of autocracy. While Malaysian law gives citizens the ability to choose their officials by free and fair periodic elections, many have feared government interference and suppression have played a pivotal role in shaping election outcomes.

One such example of government suppression can be seen in the anti-fake news law Malaysia passed at the beginning of April. The law defines fake news as “news, information, data, and reports which are wholly or partly false,” with the government serving as the judge of what fits this definition. The legislation passed through parliament hastily and was approved within weeks of the national elections, raising concerns that the policy would be used to silence opposition to the Malaysian government – read more about the measure and government gerrymandering here. At the beginning of May, Mohamad was accused and being investigated by authorities for spreading fake news, and he promised on the campaign trail to abolish the law.

The legislation was also brought forth at a time when former Prime Minister Najib Razak was facing criticism amid an international scandal concerning a multi-billion-dollar diversion scheme from the country’s state investment fund – 1MDB. Najib denied any wrongdoing and was cleared by Malaysian authorities but is still under international investigation. The new Malaysian government might reopen a criminal probe into Najib’s dealings in future.

The adoption of the anti-fake news law had many in the international community fearful that Malaysia was headed further towards authoritarianism, which is historically the result when governments squelch freedoms of the press and speech. The law sets serious penalties for those convicted, including fines of up to 500,000 ringgit (about $123,000 US dollars) and a maximum of six years in jail.

The May election results show a surprising and hopeful turn of course for the country and the democratic systems in place there. With this win and political shift, the newly elected Prime Minister Mohamad aims at “restoring the rule of law.” In the end, time will have to be the judge of democracy in Malaysia, as Mohamad said earlier last month that the government would likely redefine the fake-news law instead of abolishing it. “Even though we support freedom of press and freedom of speech, there are limits,” he said. But just this week, Mohamad announced that the new Pakatan Harapan government will convene for the first time in July and scrap a number of laws including the anti-fake news policy.

With this election, Malaysian citizens challenged the status quo and their efforts could be rewarded with government reform leading to effective checks on corruption.

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