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Mahathir Wins in Malaysia

11 May 2018

By Ariane Combal-Weiss, Research Assistant, EU-Asia Centre 

Against all odds, Mahathir Mohamad, the 92 year old chairman of the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), was elected as the new Prime Minister on 9 May to succeed Najib Razak. This put an end to 61 years of Barisan National-led governments. Najib could neither shake his alleged involvement in a major corruption scandal nor deal with charges about the rising cost of living., Despite the robust economic growth during his term in office, he failed to see off the challenge from his former mentor Mahathir.

Highlights of the election period included gerrymandering, the adoption of anti-fake news laws and the provisional disbandment of the Mahathir-led PPBM among other attempts to obstruct the opposition and delay the election process.

Three main issues were decisive in the lead up to the election: ethnic divides, economics and relations with China. Mahathir’s victory will open a new chapter for Malaysia and for regional dynamics. 


Mahathir’s victory: a “people’s tsunami” 

After 11 days of campaigning, Mahathir Mohamad was elected with 113 parliamentary seats; against 79 for Barisan National. Under the PH coalition, Mahathir Mohamad partnered with leader of the coalition Anwar Ibrahim, currently serving a five-year prison sentence. They both fulfilled their goal: ousting Najib.

The victory of the Pakatan Harapan has been described by Alice Lau Kiong Yieng of the PH as a “people’s tsunami” wanting to see a change in government. 76% of registered voters turned out to vote, which is a fairly high rate, although still below the 85% in 2013.

Not only this election has been a “people’s tsunami”, but also, as many had predicted, a “Malay tsunami” favouring the PH coalition. Mahathir could count on the deep respect he enjoys among the Malay majority. The rural Malay have been particular receptive to the PH’s arguments on the rising costs of living. He also secured the support of young people who were fed up with authoritarian rule, the erosion of ethnic harmony and ongoing government scandals. 


A smooth transfer of power?

Mahathir won the election but this is just the beginning of a long battle. He will have to come to terms with four different parties from heterogeneous backgrounds. In addition, many worry over the transfer of power, as Malaysia has never experienced a changing of the guard. Furthermore, some doubt about the sincerity of Mahathir’s pledge to act only as the interim Prime Minister, until Anwar Ibrahim secures the pardon of the Sultan and becomes Prime Minister.


Upcoming challenges for Mahathir 

Mahathir plans to repeal the GST within his first 100 days in office and resume the investigation into the Najib corruption case. Relations with China have been a key battleground between Najib and Mahathir. While the former considered close ties as boosting economic growth, Mahathir called for increased caution as regards China’s political leverage in Malaysia. China was seen as backing Najib, in particular when it came to Chinese involvement in the 1MDB affair. [1] Mahathir pledged to put Chinese investments under tighter scrutiny and possibly renegotiate some of the BRI projects under way. Some observers wonder whether Mahathir will put it into operation, given Malaysia’s high dependence on China in trade. The changing of the guard creates uncertainty over Malaysia-China relations under Mahathir. There are also question marks about future investment conditions. 


Consequences on regional dynamics

In addition to the possible change in Sino-Malaysian relations, the peaceful change decided by Malaysian citizens could have an impact on the political landscape of the region. Far from triggering an Asian Arab Spring, this could serve as an antecedent in the region; Cambodia gears up for elections later in the year. Malaysia’s neighbours, Singapore and Thailand, will also have noted this remarkable democratic change.


Relations with the European Union 

Following the outcome of the election, the EU acknowledged the “peaceful change” Malaysian people voted for. It expects a smooth transfer of power, which will be a real challenge after 61 years of rather authoritarian governments.

The EU has recently resumed the negotiations towards a Free Trade Agreement with Malaysia, after concluding talks towards a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). Palm oil remains the main bone of contention, given the environmental impact and its contribution to Malaysian economy.[2] The European Parliament has decided to ban the use of palm oil in biofuels by 2021 and required palm oil exporters to comply with a single certified sustainable palm oil scheme. Policies taken by the PH in the upcoming months on this issue will be decisive for the FTA.

Certainly the EU and Malaysia’s neighbours will be watching with interest how the winds of change play out in the political and economic spheres in coming weeks and months.

[1] Nile Bowie, “Malaysia’s election a de facto vote on China”, Asia Times, 26/04/2018. URL:

[2] 10% of the Malaysian population harvest palm oil. In January, hundreds of farmers have rallied in Kuala Lumpur to protest against the EU decision.