Malaysia’s Mahathir, world’s oldest leader to be sworn-in post shock win

Reuters KUALA LUMPUR | Updated on May 10, 2018 Published on May 10, 2018

Mahathir Mohamad, former Malaysian prime minister and opposition candidate for Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) reacts during a news conference after general election, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.   -  Reuters

Stunning Malaysian election results ends six-decade rule

An alliance of opposition parties spearheaded by Mahathir Mohamad won Malaysia's general election, official results showed on Thursday, setting the veteran strongman on course for a return to the prime minister's office he occupied for 22 years.

Mahathir's stunning defeat of the coalition that has ruled the Southeast Asian country since independence from Britain six decades ago means that, at the age of 92, he will become the oldest elected leader in the world. Official results showed that Mahathir's Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) had won 113 of parliament's 222 seats, clinching the simple majority required to rule. Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), had 79.

Mahathir told a news conference he expected to be sworn in as prime minister later on Thursday. “The time for change has come, and I hope the people in power realise this,” said Asifa Hanifah, a young woman who joined thousands of opposition supporters in central Kuala Lumpur who waved flags, cheered and honked car horns.

Few had expected Mahathir to prevail against a coalition that has long relied on the support of the country's ethnic-Malay majority. However, he joined hands with his one-time protege, the jailed politician Anwar Ibrahim, and together their alliance exploited public disenchantment over the cost of living and a multi-billion-dollar scandal that has dogged Najib since 2015.

Mahathir has promised to seek a royal pardon for Anwar if they won the election and, once Anwar is free, to step aside and let him become prime minister.

Several key roads in the heart of the capital, where violence between races has played out in the past, were blocked off by police as evidence grew that Najib's coalition was on the back foot. The police appealed for calm and said in a statement that, for now, the situation was under control.

Najib's United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party postponed an evening news conference and said Najib, who has ruled the country for nearly 10 years, would address the media at 9:45 a.m. (0145 GMT) on Thursday.

King to grant audience

Malaysia's king will grant Mahathir Mohamad an audience at 5 pm (0900 GMT), Saifuddin Abdullah, a leader from Mahathir's aliance said on Thursday. Earlier, Mahathir said he expects to be sworn in as prime minister on Thursday.

Saifuddin told Reuters Mahathir will be accompanied by four other leaders from the alliance when he meets the king.

Mahathir had said shortly after declaring victory that the King would sign his letter of appointment as prime minister of Malaysia's constitutional monarchy during a ceremony at the royal palace in the capital, Kuala Lumpur on Thursday. But palace authorities said there would be no such event and a spokesman for Mahathir, said he had not heard from the palace and had no plan to go there.

Mahathir's opposition alliance won the simple majority it required to form a new government in Wednesday's polls, a stunning result that will end six decades of rule by a coalition he once led.

Malaysians celebrated Mahathir's unexpected victory over Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose popularity had plunged over rising living costs and in the wake of a multi-billion-dollar graft scandal at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Mahathir led the Southeast Asian nation for 22 years and his unexpected return to the prime ministership ends the previously unbroken rule of Barisan Nasional (BN), the coalition that had governed Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957. “We are not seeking revenge ... what we want is to restore the rule of law,” Mahathir said of Najib's scandal-plagued rule.

Mahathir appeared jubilant and sprightly at a news conference claiming victory overnight.

Najib began an address to media in the late morning. A member of his cabinet said they would accept the will of the people.

Markets react

The stunning election outcome was expected to ruffle financial markets that were expecting a comfortable win for Najib and the BN.

Malaysia's currency weakened in offshore trading on the election result, with the ringgit one-month non-deliverable forward falling 2.4 per cent to 4.07 against the dollar. The national stock exchange Bursa Malaysia said trading would be suspended on Thursday and Friday in line with public holidays declared by the government.

Stocks and the ringgit currency could take a hit on uncertainties over the newly elected alliance's fiscal and economic policies.

Credit warning

Mahathir's alliance, which counts on urban votes and support from the minority ethnic Chinese and Indian communities, had hoped the veteran Malay leader would win over voters usually loyal to BN. That strategy appeared to have paid off.

Mahathir has promised to reverse a goods and services tax (GST) introduced by Najib during his first 100 days in power and review foreign investments. Global ratings agency Moody's said some of his campaign promises, including the GST and a reintroduction of fuel subsidies, could be credit negative for Malaysia's sovereign debt rating.

Mahathir was once Najib's mentor but they clashed after differences over the 1MDB graft scandal, in which billions of dollars were allegedly siphoned off to foreign countries. The scandal is being investigated by at least six countries, although Malaysia's attorney general cleared Najib of any wrongdoing.

Mahathir vowed to investigate the scandal if elected and to bring the funds back to Malaysia.

Asked on Thursday if Najib would be prosecuted, Mahathir said: “If anybody breaks the law, and that includes a journalist, they will be brought before the court.”

Mahathir must now manage a fractious alliance of four parties and make way for jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to become the next prime minister, another former protege with whom he split acrimoniously before reuniting to topple Najib. “I have to manage presidents of four different parties. It's going to be a headache,” Mahathir told reporters.

‘History being made’

The reverse for UMNO, the dominant partner in BN, takes Malaysia into uncharted political terrain, said Keith Leong, head of research at the KRA Group consultancy. “We are witnessing history being made in this country,” he said.

Ethnic-Malay Muslims have long tended to support BN for affirmative-action policies that give them government contracts, cheap housing and guaranteed university admissions.

Mahathir's alliance, which counts on urban votes and support from the minority ethnic Chinese and Indian communities, had hoped the veteran Malay leader would win over voters usually loyal to BN. That strategy appeared to have paid off. “There has been a significant shift in the Malay vote,” said Rashaad Ali, an analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Mahathir's opposition wrested control of key sted BN's grip in strongholds like Sarawak.

Accept people’s verdict: Najib

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Thursday he accepted “the verdict of the people” after his ruling coalition failed to secure a simple majority in a general election for the first time ever. “I and my friends accept the verdict of the people and Barisan Nasional is committed to respecting the principles of parliamentary democracy,” Najib said, referring to the ruling coalition.

He said the next prime minister would be decided by Malaysia's king as no single party won a simple majority.

An opposition coalition led by former veteran prime minister Mahathir Mohamad won the most seats in Wednesday's vote in a stunning defeat for Barisan Nasional, which has ruled since Malaysia's independence from Britain, nearly 60 years ago.

Polarising figure

Mahathir is a polarising figure and many voters are suspicious of him because of his iron-fist rule as prime minister from 1981 to 2003. But 64-year-old Najib's popularity dropped sharply over the past three years, partly due to a scandal over 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund from which billions of dollars were allegedly siphoned off.

Mahathir was once Najib's mentor but he left UMNO over the 1MDB affair and joined the opposition. Najib, who was chairman of 1MDB's advisory board, has denied any wrongdoing and he has been cleared of any offence by Malaysia's attorney general.

In an even more unlikely change of heart, Mahathir buried a feud with Anwar, 70, last year and the two agreed to join forces to topple Najib.

Mahathir sacked Anwar as his deputy prime minister in 1998. Anwar then started a movement known as 'Reformasi - reform - to end UMNO's race- and patronage-based governance. However, he was stopped in his tracks by charges of sodomy and graft, which he denied, but for which he was jailed.

Anwar was imprisoned again in 2015, when Najib was prime minister, after another sodomy charge, which he described as a politically motivated attempt to end his career.

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Published on May 10, 2018
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