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Lasting lessons from Malaysia for SE Asia - Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Some have likened it to an "earthquake," while others have called it a "tsunami." However it is billed, Malaysia's election outcome still reverberates far and wide. Its political aftershocks yield lessons and considerations for politics in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, which holds the dubious distinction as the only parliamentary system in this region that does not know when it will next stage a poll.

First, a broader lesson merits scrutiny.

Some analysts have deemed Malaysia's massive election result in favour of the opposition – Pakatan Harapan (PH), or Alliance of Hope – as a "modernisation tsunami". PH garnered 113 seats and around 47% of the popular vote, and trounced the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN), or National Front, which won 79 seats and 35% of the popular vote. The lopsided results were unexpected, as all polls and indications suggested BN would somehow eke out a victory as it did in previous contests in 2008 and 2013. Other parties that were awarded a place in the 222-member parliament were Parti Islam Malaysia (PAS) with 18, Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan) with eight, and the State Reform Party (STAR) and Independents with one and two, respectively.

A four-party coalition, PH's resounding victory has been celebrated in pro-democracy circles as an authoritarian stopper and reverser. As authoritarian characteristics and autocratic regimes have been on the march in recent years, from Europe's far-right movements to President Donald Trump in America and Philippine strongman President Rodrigo Duterte and Thailand's military government, democratisation and its attendant civil liberties and basic freedoms have been dealt one blow after another.

Led by the allegedly corrupt and abusive ex-prime minister Najib Razak, BN's dismal electoral performance may just stem from an anti-fraud, anti-graft "protest vote". The former prime minister ended up with US$681 million of state funds in his personal bank account, but his party still allowed him to get away with it. The electorate spoke up when it was given a chance. The notion that Malaysia's sustained economic development and rising incomes ultimately begot the political liberalisation and democratic fervour that ousted Mr Najib is suspect. The correlation is unclear. Had BN got rid of Mr Najib and faced voters under a cleaner leader, it might have squeaked through like before.

In addition, it is too soon to draw too much from Malaysia's anti-corruption protest vote. Whether it regains momentum for democracy in Southeast Asia is dependent on what happens going forward. If a more liberal, tolerant and anti-authoritarian political order comes into place, then the Malaysian example might become a catalyst for developing democracies elsewhere.

Second, leadership will be decisively consequential. That Dr Mahathir Mohamad has returned as prime minister, at 92 and after a 15-year hiatus, was unsurprising because he spearheaded PH. Dr Mahathir so far has kept the deal with his coalition partners, particularly Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or Keadilan), whose de facto leader is Anwar Ibrahim. Keadilan won 47 seats and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) earned 42, while Dr Mahathir's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM, or Bersatu) got just 13, with Party Amanah Negara ending up with 11.

Mr Anwar received a royal pardon and was freed from jail just days after the poll results. At the same time, Mr Najib and his wife were banned from leaving the country and will now face a full frontal investigation without state instruments and the BN's party machinery to help them. Dr Mahathir also said he would be in office for just "one to two years" before handing over the reins to Mr Anwar. This was the deal.

But Dr Mahathir may later be tempted to stay on longer, as the trappings of power become too hard to let go. Moreover, his politician son, Mr Mahathir Mukhriz, may now be on the rise, which would incentivise Prime Minister Mahathir to be partial to his own offspring. Perhaps not, but a leadership struggle in the coming months should not be dismissed. Mr Anwar himself, at 70, may want to turn his vindication into a vendetta against those who persecuted him. He also may feel fit and entitled to rule over everybody else because Keadilan did so well.

The lesson for Dr Mahathir comes from Thailand. Unless institutions and mechanisms of changes of government and political mobility are clearly set and strong, leaders tend to hang on as long as they can, often beyond designated terms. In places like the Philippines or Indonesia, where there are term limits, leaders have to leave on time but they want to leave lasting legacies, proxies and nominees. A good example for a leader who left as pledged, even though he could have stayed longer in office, is coup-appointed General Surayud Chulanont, who insisted on holding elections in December 2007, while the military wanted to prolong its coup time.

The best leadership outcome for Malaysia is for the aged Dr Mahathir to leave as promised, and for Mr Anwar to also leave soon after he takes over. That way, Malaysia can usher in a new generation of leaders for a fresh, new horizon.

Finally, the Malaysian anti-corruption and anti-abuse tidal wave suggests it could be repeated in Thailand, especially with the yet-unquantified powers of social media. The Thai people are notorious for putting up with bad governments but there is a limit to it. In 1973 and 1992, they took to the streets and overthrew military dictatorships. At other times, they wait for polls. It is very plausible that we may see an anti-military tsunami on the eventual polling day in Thailand. The profound and fundamental difference is that Thailand at this time does not have a viable and attractive PH. This is what is needed in Thailand, not just to get rid of the military government but also to provide a fresh, new course ahead for Thai politics.