Kuala Lumpur (AFP) – Delight, disbelief and a degree of apprehension about a former strongman taking the reins of power again — Malaysians were stunned Thursday after the scandal-ridden coalition was finally unseated by a challenge from Mahathir Mohamad, 92.
Mahathir’s opposition alliance stormed to a historic win at the elections, toppling the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that had ruled Malaysia for more than six decades.
It was a stunning — and totally unexpected — win for the nonagenarian, who had ruled Malaysia with an iron fist and came out of retirement due to an explosive corruption scandal that ensnared Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Most Malaysians, who turned out in droves to vote out Najib, were delighted but huge crowds did not hit the streets to celebrate — many were simply exhausted after a bitter election campaign and the gargantuan effort of pushing out a deeply entrenched government.
There was a sense of catharsis after the opposition alliance, boosted by the presence of political titan Mahathir, finally ousted a coalition that has for years been accused of massive corruption, fanning racial tensions in the multi-ethnic country and economic mismanagement.
“Honestly, I feel like we have just gained independence,” Nor Hisham Rahmat, 45, told AFP, expressing a common sentiment among voters.
Nor Hisham is from Johor in southern Malaysia, one of several states where the local legislature fell to the opposition for the first time since Malaysia became independent in 1957.
He said people’s livelihoods had been affected under Najib’s rule due to the rising cost of living, a major issue in the election campaign.
“People are suffering. That is why BN was toppled,” he said.
Toh Gian Ming, a 53-year-old businessmen, said he hoped the corruption that plagued public life under Najib would end with a change in government.
“I expect all the abuses under Najib will end. I long for a clean and just government,” he said.
Ganesan Karuppannan, a 54-year-old lawyer, said the country had descended into a “dictatorial situation” in recent years.
“People’s feelings were not respected, the rule of law was disappearing by the day and every institution in this country has been
messed with,” he said.
Mahathir undoubtedly helped to carry the opposition to victory by appealing to voters sick of Najib’s corruption-plagued rule, but his comeback has also been controversial.
Many remember him fondly as a key figure in the transformation of Malaysia from sleepy Southeast Asian backwater into a relatively affluent, economic success story.
But he was also known as an authoritarian leader, who threw political opponents in jail and hollowed out the country’s democratic institutions.
“Mahathir ruled the country with an iron fist — a tiger never changes his stripes — and Mahathir’s style of rule will continue to be authoritarian,” said 33-year-old businessman P. Punithan.
“Democracy and human rights were never part of his DNA.”