They may not qualify as echoes of May 1968, but a pair of intriguing developments means that May 2018 could go down as a historic turning point in the political trajectories of at least two very different countries.
First and foremost, the Malaysian election result earlier this month was remarkable on several counts. It was the first instance of power democratically changing hands in that country since it gained independence in 1957, and that too in a region where lately elections have generally served to reinforce the status quo. Furthermore, the ostensible transformation has been led by a nonagenarian who, until the turn of the century, personified the status quo, in collaboration with his most celebrated victim.
Mahathir Mohamad, during his 32 years as prime minister, frequently lapsed into the authoritarian category, especially in terms of crushing dissent. His most prominent victim was his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, with whom he spectacularly fell out following the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Facetiously charged with sodomy, Anwar was brutalised and incarcerated for the remainder of Mahathir’s tenure.
He was imprisoned again, on the same absurd charge, after winning more votes than another Mahathir protégé, Najib Razak. Last week, Anwar emerged from imprisonment following a royal pardon obtained through Mahathir’s intercession as the newly elected prime minister, after the multi-ethnic coalition that includes both men’s parties unexpectedly won the election on a reformist agenda.
Cronyism was among the accusations by Anwar on which he fell out with Mahathir in the 1990s, but the latter’s political machinations were not guided by the goal of personal enrichment. Najib’s regime, on the other hand, has been cited by the US Department of Justice as kleptocracy at its worst. Raids on his properties in recent days yielded not only incriminating amounts of cash in various currencies but also a haul of Hermes Birkin handbags and various other luxuries. Who knows whether Donald Trump was aware of his DOJ’s verdict when he feted Najib at the White House and presented him with a signed photograph inscribed with the words: “To my favourite prime minister.”
Najib’s biggest scandal revolved around billions siphoned off from a state fund known as 1MDB, including some $700 million that ended up in his personal account — although it has been claimed that amount came from personal Saudi donors. It was apparently the 1MDB embarrassment that was decisive in Mahathir turning against Najib and successfully seeking reconciliation with Anwar. Even so, no one seriously expected the opposition alliance to triumph against the Barisan Nasional coalition headed by the United Malays National Organisation, given the latter’s penchant for bribery, manipulation and gerrymandering.
But it seems the tide had decisively turned, and it seems to have helped that the opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan, had a familiar figure at its helm — at nearly 93, Mahathir looks at least 20 years younger and remains perfectly coherent in his speech, which is still characterised by the sharp tongue that made him an entertaining presence at international gatherings.
If Mahathir’s late-life resurgence lends some sort of hope to Nawaz Sharif, others such as Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri may be more moved by the example of Nikol Pashinyan, who was catapulted in the past few weeks from protest leader to prime minister in Armenia.
The impetus for change evolved last month when Serzh Sargsyan, who had exhausted his two terms as president, sought to parachute himself into the prime ministership of the former Soviet republic — which has followed the common trajectory of a failed socialist model morphing almost instantaneously into neoliberal authoritarianism. Widespread protests, mainly rooted in economic discontent, persuaded Sargsyan to bow out. But his party, holding a parliamentary majority, initially rejected Pashinyan as a replacement.
During the second vote, there were an estimated 250,000 people in the square and streets outside parliament, awaiting its verdict — that is, close to 10 per cent of the nation’s population. Enough members of the ruling party caved in for Pashinyan to emerge as the prime minister. In that capacity, he has promised to call fresh elections as soon as conditions are conducive. He has also promised to liberate the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, and thereby to solve a dispute that marred the final years of the Soviet Union and has persisted ever since.
Of course, in both these instances, one must concede that the harbingers of hope may be short-lived. Armenia isn’t exactly out of the woods, and in Malaysia, the longevity of the anti-Najib coalition is difficult to predict now that he is out of the way and quite possibly headed for the courtroom dock. The hopes that have been raised may be disappointed. But they might not. If it’s premature for anyone to jump for joy, there’s certainly no harm in keeping one’s fingers tightly crossed.
(This article was written by Mahir Ali)