Upset in Malaysian election ends 60-year rule by single party

Official results from Malaysia's general election Wednesday show an opposition alliance, led by former authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad, has won a majority in parliament, ending a 60-year rule by National Front.

Opposition coalition led by Mahathir Mohamad, 92, has won majority in parliament

Mahathir Mohamad, right, leader of the coalition party Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) who was prime minister for 22 years until 2003, came out of retirement to run against his former protege. (Lai Seng Sin/Reuters)

Official results from Malaysia's national election show the opposition alliance led by the country's former authoritarian ruler Mahathir Mohamad has won a majority in parliament, ending the 60-year rule of the National Front.

The Election Commission says the opposition has so far won 112 seats and the National Front has 76 seats. 

The opposition is also sweeping state elections, including Johor state where the dominant Malay party in the National Front was founded. A coalition of right and centre parties, National Front, and its direct predecessor (Alliance), is considered the longest continuing ruling coalition party in the democratic world.

Malaysian voters have been angered by a corruption scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak and new taxes.

Mahathir is 92 and leads an alliance of opposition parties, Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope). Founded in 2015, it is a coalition of left and centre parties.

 A simple majority in Malysia's parliament is 112 seats. Under Malaysia's system, the party that gets the most seats in parliament wins even if it does not secure the popular vote.

Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak of Barisan Nasional (National Front) looks at his ballot before casting it at a polling station in Pekan. Najib's campaign was plagued by a corruption scandal. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

Charges of gerrymandering

Analysts had previously said Barisan Nasional (National Front), which has been in power for 60 years, might lose the popular vote but hold onto a majority in parliament due to an electoral system that gives more power to rural Malays, the party's traditional supporters.

Critics argued the ruling party worked to heavily gerrymander ridings, heavily packing areas likely to favour the opposition, and extensively parcelling out rural areas.

Najib, 64, also faced an uproar surrounding 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), the state fund that racked up heavy debt after he took power in 2009. In 2015 news broke that amount that equated to $681 million US ($835 million Cdn) had found its way into his personal accounts.

The prime minister denied any wrongdoing, claiming it was a "gift" from Saudi Arabia, and local authorities have cleared him. The U.S. Justice Department says $4.5 billion US was looted from 1MBD overall by associates of Najib between 2009 and 2014.

Opposition party supporters cheer as they gather to watch the general election result broadcast on a large screen in a field in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

Mahathir, who ruled with an iron fist for 22 years, was once Najib's mentor but turned against him over the 1MDB affair and quit the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, which represents the country's Malay majority. 

During the counting process, Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at John Cabot University in Rome, said an early lead by the opposition was "a repudiation of Najib's government from all walks of life from the very rural northern states to the more industrial southern coast." 

"The person who has made this happen is Mahathir. He has been a significant game-changer. He made people feel that a transition of power is possible," said Welsh, who is in Kuala Lumpur to observe the polls.

Corruption scandal plagued Najib

Under Najib, the ruling coalition's prestige was eroded by the 1MDB corruption scandal and an unpopular sales tax that hit poor rural Malays particularly hard.

Faced with a reinvigorated opposition, the government used the levers of power to further tilt the playing field in its favour, critics and analysts said. 

Redrawn electoral boundaries were rushed through parliament last month, pushing likely opposition voters into districts that already support the opposition and dividing constituencies along racial lines. A recently passed "fake news" law was an attempt to stifle debate and criticism, opponents said.

The National Front lost its two-thirds majority in parliament in 2008 polls and lost the popular vote in 2013, though it still won 60 per cent of seats that year. 

With files from Reuters


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