The story line is a familiar one these days: A populist strongman with a long record of racially divisive commentary prevails in the polls.
But Mahathir Mohamad, who was sworn in as prime minister of Malaysia on Thursday, was not swept to power by the kind of nationalist demagoguery that has captivated electorates in places like Hungary, India and the Philippines.
Instead, Mr. Mahathir was at the head of a multiethnic opposition that ousted a government long dependent on stoking the fears of Malaysia’s Malay Muslim majority to prolong its grip on power. That Mr. Mahathir, 92, had for decades toughened the network of race and patronage that contributed to Malaysia’s political sclerosis is just one of the many surprises of the national elections on Wednesday.
“It has produced a multiracial — not Malay or Chinese — tsunami of protest against the corruption, economic mismanagement and abuse of political power,” said Lim Teck Ghee, a public policy analyst and author of the book “Challenging the Status Quo in Malaysia.” “It has avoided racial and religious rancor and acrimony, which would have left a contentious and dangerous aftermath.”
Few people expected Mr. Mahathir’s opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan — an unwieldy collection of reformists, nationalists, Islamists, ethnic minorities and former enemies of Mr. Mahathir — to hold together, much less shatter an entrenched political system that has held sway in Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957.
But Mr. Mahathir, who now ranks as the world’s oldest serving prime minister, has long been adept at staging unlikely political plot twists. And the voter outrage that fueled his comeback is a burst of hope in Southeast Asia, where democracy has ebbed in the face of populist autocrats.
“After independence, this is probably the most important occasion in our political history,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, a longtime political analyst who ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in this election. “It paves the way for political competition.”
Although people-power revolutions late in the last century resulted in the overthrow of dictators like Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Suharto of Indonesia, strongman rule has returned in force to Southeast Asia.
President Rodrigo Duterte has kick-started a drug war in the Philippines that has killed thousands, while Prime Minister Hun Sen has systematically destroyed even the semblance of a political opposition in Cambodia. Thailand has reverted to military rule, with elections repeatedly postponed. Generals in Myanmar continue to call the shots as they have unleashed a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Brunei remains an isolated sultanate.
At one time, Mr. Mahathir might have been more suited to the hall of infamy that included Asia’s despots and junta chiefs. During his years as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, Mr. Mahathir muzzled the media, jailed his opponents on what were seen as trumped-up charges and turned a blind eye as leaders of the governing National Front coalition personally profited from their political positions. His virulent Malay nationalism alienated Malaysia’s sizable Chinese and Indian minorities.
In this week’s elections, Mr. Mahathir delivered Malaysia’s first post-ethnic vote, attracting Malaysians of all backgrounds to the opposition.
“We’ve talked so long about different categories of Malaysians, all these boxes of people,” said Fahmi Fadzil, who won a parliamentary seat for the opposition People’s Justice Party despite extensive government gerrymandering in his district. “This election is about uniting us, not dividing us.”
Even some of his fiercest enemies have come to see Mr. Mahathir in a different light.
“I trust him today because at this time and age, he is more interested in leaving the right legacy for Malaysians and to set his record right in the history books,” said Tony Pua, an opposition member of Parliament who was re-elected Wednesday with a record number of votes. “If wealth and power were his ambitions, there are much easier routes he could have taken.”
Still, Mr. Mahathir is an unlikely avatar of democracy, particularly one in which diversity is championed.
More than anything, what bound Pakatan Harapan, Mr. Mahathir’s coalition, was revulsion for his predecessor, Najib Razak, who has been tainted by accusations of immense greed and graft during his nine years as prime minister.
Mr. Najib, once Mr. Mahathir’s protégé, stands accused of diverting $731 million from a state investment fund he controlled into his own bank accounts. His own government had cleared him of any wrongdoing. But Mr. Mahathir said after the vote that Mr. Najib would have to face the consequences.
“Our intention is to go for people who have shown a tendency to be corrupt,” Mr. Mahathir said Friday.
During his earlier stint as prime minister, Mr. Mahathir perpetuated an affirmative action scheme for Malays that was designed to erase the long years of discrimination under British colonial rule. The policy gave “sons of the soil,” as Malays and indigenous people are known, preferential treatment in education and employment. Most civil service jobs went to Malays.
But as Malaysia developed into a middle-income country, members of the Chinese and Indian communities wondered why so much of the economy was reserved for Malays. Others worried that affirmative action was making Malays complacent and unable to compete in a free market. A brain drain of talented Chinese and Indians robbed the country of some of its best talent.
Mr. Mahathir’s enduring charisma and rapier speech energized the opposition, all the more so given his advanced age. During the campaign, he avoided the language of Malay superiority. At news conferences, he joked with reporters and teased opposition figures who had been political prisoners under his tenure.
Yet his decades of intolerant sentiments have left some wary.
“Where some see sharp wit, I see red flags that the old Mahathir is still recognizable under it all,” said Lainie Yeoh, a marketing director in Kuala Lumpur, the capital.
Perhaps the most significant measure of the new Mahathir is his announcement Friday that Malaysia’s king, Sultan Muhammad V, will pardon the former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is serving a prison sentence for sodomy that many saw as politically motivated. A pardon could set the stage for Mr. Anwar to succeed Mr. Mahathir as prime minister.
“Malaysians have gone through such a painful time,” said Mr. Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar, who was re-elected to Parliament. “Anwar Ibrahim has gone through so much. Now we need to show that we will reject the divisiveness of the past and embrace inclusiveness for all Malaysians.
“We’re supposed to be a democracy. Let’s act that way.”
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