In an era of authoritarian regression, illiberal populism, and xenophobic nationalism, any faint glimmers of democratic progress are sorely needed. But Malaysia’s parliamentary elections last week gave much more than a glimmer of hope. After 61 years the authoritarian ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), and its core dominant party, UMNO, were turned out of power. Fed up with staggering corruption and abuse of power, and overcoming countless undemocratic obstacles, Malaysia’s voters delivered a stinging rebuke to the BN, which fell to barely a third of the vote. Since independence in 1957, the ruling alliance had never lost an election. One of Asia’s (and indeed the world’s) most resilient competitive authoritarian regimes has now fallen.
The result evokes the electoral earthquake in Mexico in 2000, when the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost power after seven decades of unbroken hegemony. But in some ways, it is even more extraordinary. In Mexico, President Ernesto Zedillo had enacted significant liberalizing reforms during his six-year presidency, including the establishment of an independent and authoritative electoral administration. This enabled significant opposition gains in the 1997 midterm congressional elections, presaging the historic power alternation three years later.
In Malaysia, by contrast, dominant-party rule had become increasingly venal and oppressive since Najib Razak became Prime Minister in April 2009. The son of Malaysia’s second Prime Minister and nephew of the third, Najib had entered parliament at the age of 23 and went on to serve as minister of education, then defense, then finance, as well as Deputy Prime Minister. A savvy global player, he was said to be President Barack Obama’s favorite Asian leader. But he became one of Asia’s greediest leaders as well, plundering the country’s wealth in a spectacular corruption scandal. Through the vehicle of 1MDB, a government-run development company, billions of dollars in public funds simply disappeared—reportedly, $700 million of them into Prime Minister’s Najib’s own personal accounts. Other embezzled funds reportedly went to fund the effusive patronage that Najib doled out in advance of the 2013 election.
While Zedillo moved Mexico to fairer electoral administration, Najib stacked the rules ever more egregiously in his favor. In 2013, districts were so severely gerrymandered and malapportioned in favor of rural Malays (the UMNO base) that the ruling alliance won 60 percent of the seats with only 47 percent of the vote. Despite massive incumbency advantages—in campaign finance, media coverage, and control of the campaign calendar—and widespread fraud and voter intimidation, Najib’s ruling alliance lost the 2013 popular vote to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his alliance, Pakatan Rakyat, but its 51 percent of the vote delivered it only 40 percent of the seats.
The elections on May 9, 2018 were plagued by even more egregious unfairness. After his near-defeat in 2013, Najib was not ready to risk any possibility of a victory by the charismatic Anwar in the next election. So he jailed him. Since the aftermath of the 2008 elections, and for the second time in a decade—what farcically came to be known in Malaysia as “Sodomy II”—the regime had been prosecuting Anwar on trumped-up charges of gay sex, which is illegal in the socially conservative country. The new case proceeded even though earlier charges—for which Anwar had served six years in solitary confinement—had been thoroughly discredited, with witnesses recanting testimony (claiming they had been coerced into falsely testifying), DNA evidence being tossed out after conviction due to tampering, and a federal court finally overturning his conviction in 2004. Although Anwar was acquitted of the “Sodomy II” charges in 2012, the state appealed the acquittal and won a conviction in 2014. The decision came just two weeks before Anwar was to contest a by-election that would have made him the chief minister of Malaysia’s most economically important state, Selangor (roughly akin to becoming Governor of New York). Anwar lost his appeal of that decision, and was imprisoned on a five-year sentence in February 2015.
With its leader in jail, the opposition needed a powerful figure to rally and unify the nation’s disgust with Najib. In desperation, it turned to Anwar’s former tormentor, Mahathir Mohammed. During his 22 years as Prime Minister of Malaysia (1981-2003), Mahathir had transformed Malaysia economically while preserving and deepening authoritarian rule. In 1998, he had sacked Anwar as his deputy when they fell out over Anwar’s refusal (as Finance Minister) to bail out failing Malaysian companies owned by Mahathir’s children and cronies. When Anwar then formed an opposition movement to challenge the regime’s corruption and authoritarianism, Mahathir responded with a heavy hand: “Sodomy I.” In our 2012 documentary film, A Whisper to a Roar, Mahathir all but conceded that Anwar’s prosecution had been political. “Of course, he would succeed me if he had been patient,” Mahathir said on camera in 2011. “Today he would be the Prime Minister.”
But politics makes strange bedfellows. Najib had brought governance in Malaysia to a level of greed and cynical exploitation of religion and ethnicity that offended even Mahathir, the lion of the political establishment. At the age of 90, Mahathir came out of retirement to join nationwide protests over the 1MDB scandal, calling for Najib’s resignation. And at age 92, he was elected again Prime Minister—at the helm of the opposition coalition.
Malaysia’s sudden turn is characteristic of many electoral authoritarian regimes—they seem stable, until they are not. Their strength—their claim to legitimacy through repeated multiparty elections, and their mobilization of support through an invincible party—is also their vulnerability. Lacking the discipline that comes with real risk of electoral defeat, lacking the checks that come with an independent judiciary and a free press and civil society, electoral authoritarian regimes are at chronic risk of a public revolt at the ballot box—or on the streets—when corruption and human rights abuses reach intolerable levels. The familiar tools of control—electoral manipulation and fraud, press censorship, punitive use of the judiciary to intimidate and silence the opposition—work only to a point. When the regime’s abuses grow too extreme, or when the society grows more prosperous and better educated, people become less willing to put up with arrogant, self-serving autocracy. They long increasingly for a voice, accountability, and the rule of law. And they become more willing to take risks to achieve them.
Two factors are common in sending such regimes over the cliff. One is social and economic development that creates a more educated, resourceful, and demanding public. Thus, opposition crystallizes first and foremost in the cities, among the professional classes, and among the young (now the smartphone generation). The second factor is divisions within the regime, fracturing its leadership or support base and opening the way for new working alliances. Both of these factors were crucial in Malaysia.
It’s hard to find a sharper example of a regime split than the former autocrat of 22 years defecting to the opposition, with a chunk of the establishment behind him. But Malaysia’s society had also changed dramatically. In his classic 1991 work on global democratization, The Third Wave, Samuel Huntington identified a range of economic development levels that he called a “zone of transition”—roughly about $3,500 to $14,000 in today’s nominal dollars. With a per capita income of about $11,000, Malaysia today is closer to the upper end of that zone. Moreover, in purchasing power parity—what income can really buy—Malaysia is much richer, with a per capita income of roughly $30,000, placing it among the top forty non-oil states over one million population. With an adult literacy rate of 95 percent and an average life expectancy of 75 years, Malaysia is starting to look a lot like a developed country. Its overall measure on the UN’s Human Development Index is only marginally lower than that of Romania, Bulgaria—and Russia.
As Michael McFaul argues in his captivating account of his years dealing with Russia in the Obama Administration, From Cold War to Hot Peace, Russia, too, has seen a new generation rise up with economic growth and better access to information. And they, too, want a voice, accountability, and the rule of law—in other words, democracy. These better educated and younger Russians—some, McFaul says, as young as twelve years old—are not going away. Their widespread street demonstrations in December 2011—the largest in Russia since the 1991 revolution—to protest blatant fraud in the parliamentary elections were a key trigger motivating Putin to punish Hillary Clinton and the United States, whom he accused of fomenting them. But with people pouring into the streets once again—in some 26 cities across Russia—to protest Putin’s inauguration to a fourth presidential term, and with Donald Trump in the White House, who does Putin have to blame now? Electoral autocracies look strong—until they’re not. Beneath the surface of domineering calm a new generation of citizens is stirring in Russia, as it did in Malaysia. They are fed up with kelptocracy and are not going to stay silent.
Putin knows this, and that is why he will not allow the level of electoral opposition that has existed in Malaysia. The March 18 presidential election was a meaningless charade in which the only serious opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny, was barred from running. More Russians understand this than is apparent to most Westerners. And compared to Najib—who was a world-class thief of public funds—Putin is a kleptocrat of titanic proportions. If you are looking for lessons from the Malaysian earthquake, here is one: Don’t overestimate the stability of Putin’s kleptocracy. Its control of coercion, money, and propaganda is immense. But so is its insecurity. This is why Putin is unnerved by the fall of every autocracy—why he freaked out over the Arab Spring, and at least one reason why he has dug in defending Assad in Syria. One of the reasons Putin waged a relentless propaganda assault on Michael McFaul during his two years as U.S. ambassador was an article McFaul published in the July 2005 Journal of Democracy analyzing the factors behind the “color revolutions” in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine between 2000 and 2004, which in each case brought down authoritarian rule after electoral rigging. Several of those factors (political space for opposition, an unpopular incumbent, a united opposition, and splits within the regime) were present in Malaysia. Putin’s paranoid fear was that McFaul had come to promote these conditions in Russia. Any autocrat who fears that an American ambassador can bring down a regime as resourceful and ruthless as Russia’s cannot really, deep down, be confident.
There is another factor that is crucial here, and now, after his years in government, McFaul makes more of it than he did it before: Leadership. Putin’s most charismatic and effective opponent, Boris Nemtsov, was shot to death a short distance from the Kremlin in February 2015. Anwar’s reputation was assassinated repeatedly, and he spent nearly half of the last two decades in solitary confinement. But fortunately he survived. At some point in the next year or two, he will become the first democratic Prime Minister of Malaysia.
In November 2014, shortly before he returned to Malaysia to face almost certain imprisonment, Anwar Ibrahim delivered a moving speech at Stanford on the compatibility between Islam and liberal democracy. In closing he quoted an early-20th century Tunisian poet, Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi, who had inspired a struggle for freedom in his time and Arab Spring protests a century later. “If the people will to live,” Anwar quoted al-Shabbi prophetically, “the chains are certain to be broken.”
After six decades, Malaysia’s chains are now broken. This will not be the last autocracy to fall in our time.