Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad won another five-year term Monday in a bitterly contested election that capped more than a year of political and economic turmoil but left Mahathir’s image as an iron-willed survivor firmly intact.
His victory came as no surprise. After 18 years in power, Mahathir is Asia’s longest-serving elected leader. Aides close to him said he dearly wanted one last triumph to silence an emboldened opposition that is calling for democratic reform and criticizing the combative style of the 73-year-old physician-turned-politician.
In the end, the majority of Malaysians put desires for a less authoritarian form of governance on hold and endorsed what Mahathir prided himself on giving this country of 22 million people for a generation: ethnic harmony, a growing middle class, political stability and impressive economic growth that averaged 8% a year until Asia’s recession hit Malaysia in 1998.
“I’m tired of the prime minister in a lot of ways,” said shopkeeper Mohamad Bahrudin, who nonetheless voted for Mahathir. “But at least I know what I’m getting, and I know we lose it all if we don’t have stability. Mahathir delivered. The opposition? Who’s to say how they’d handle things? Maybe they’d upset everything.”
With 191 of 193 parliamentary seats decided by early today, Mahathir’s ruling coalition had won 148--substantially more than the two-thirds he considered necessary for a firm endorsement. The main opposition coalition won 40 seats, 17 more than it held in the outgoing Parliament.
The man Mahathir really ran against wasn’t even a candidate. He is in solitary confinement in Sungai Buloh Prison here, serving a six-year sentence for corruption and awaiting the resumption of his trial on sodomy charges. Anwar Ibrahim, 52, former deputy prime minister and once Mahathir’s heir apparent, maintains his innocence on all counts and says he was set up by his former mentor.
Campaigning lasted only eight days in the run-up to the election, which was called on short notice. Mahathir had hoped that his victory would exorcise Anwar’s ghost from the political landscape. But that’s unlikely to happen.
Anwar’s treatment--his sacking in September 1998 and his arrest and beating in prison after he led an anti-government rally of 30,000 people in Kuala Lumpur, the capital--galvanized the opposition and has left society divided between those who point to the benefits of the status quo and those who cite the need for increased democracy.
Many political analysts saw the election as Mahathir’s last hurrah. He has spoken of retirement before but did not want to leave with his legacy damaged by a shattered economy and an ongoing debate over Anwar’s future. Now, the economy is recovering and calls for increased democracy are more muted than opposition forces had hoped.
Western diplomats believe that Mahathir will designate a successor and maintain his firm control over a government that tolerates limited democratic expression as long as it does not threaten religious and ethnic balances or challenge the wisdom of the prime minister’s policies.
The newly formed opposition coalition, Alternative Front, chose the imprisoned Anwar as its candidate; he declined to run. But capitalizing on the sympathy many Malaysians, particularly the young, feel for Anwar, the front will find growing support in its calls for justice, political analysts said. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is likely to emerge as a central opposition figure.
She won the seat her husband had held for 16 years, trouncing a former Cabinet minister in the election. But the front’s 40 seats fell far short of the one-third of the total it felt it needed to claim a widespread mandate for change.
Mahathir’s United Malays National Organization, the kingmaker in a 14-party multiethnic coalition known as the National Front, seemed intent during the campaign on destroying the opposition by playing to the worst fears of Malaysians, who remember race riots of 1969 and understand the fragility of a society with a majority of Muslim Malays and minorities of Christians, Buddhist Chinese and Hindu Indians.