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Malaysia’s lesson for leaders who stay too long

The May 9 election overthrew the only party ever to rule the Southeast Asian nation. Young voters rejected corrupt, crony politics and chose a broad coalition that promises rule of law.

Malaysians at a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur react as they watch TV showing former strongman Mahathir Mohamad being sworn in as the new prime minister May 10. Official results from Malaysia's national election show the opposition alliance won a majority in parliament.
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Long lying low in a quiet corner of Asia with a humdrum democracy, Malaysia and its 31 million people sent shock waves across the region on May 9 with an election that has been dubbed a “people’s tsunami.” Voters rose up and threw out a party that had ruled the former British colony since it gained independence in 1957.

For democracies and autocracies everywhere, Malaysia’s election offers an insight on how citizens eventually know when entrenched and corrupt leaders must go.

The main charge against the incumbent prime minister, Najib Razak, and his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was that he led a “government of thieves.” For the winning coalition of parties, known as the Alliance of Hope, that was not a difficult claim to make. Mr. Razak is being investigated by the United States, Switzerland, and other countries on allegations that as much as $4 billion has gone missing from the state development fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

The US Justice Department claims the prime minister pocketed $681 million for himself. Some of the 1MDB money was spent in the US, such as in the making of the Hollywood movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The scandal is the largest investigation in the history of the Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative.

Voters were able to set aside the old reasons that were used to keep UMNO in power, such as the identity politics of the country’s dominant Malay people and the official favoritism given to them. They also saw through Razak’s media controls, gerrymandering, favors to state workers, sedition charges against opponents, and other moves aimed at winning the election. Young people, according to election-watchers, sought honest and transparent government that would treat all citizens as equal.

It is still unclear how much the new government will fulfill such hopes by institutional reform. The head of the winning coalition, the former long-term ruler Mahathir Mohamad, has his own checkered record. But he came out of retirement at the age of 92 to challenge his former party and, according to associates, to make amends. He has designated one of his former party foes, Anwar Ibrahim, as his eventual replacement. And he says he wants to restore “rule of law.”

Just the fact that Malaysia has experienced its first transfer of power between opposing parties – and by democratic means – is a sign of hope for its people. It can also send a message to the many others in Asia ready to challenge rulers who have clung to power and privilege too long.

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