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News Analysis: Malaysia Finds an Unlikely Champion of Democracy: Its Ex-Strongman

May 10, 2018

At one time, Mr. Mahathir might have been more suited to the hall of infamy that included Asia’s despots and junta chiefs. During his years as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, Mr. Mahathir muzzled the media, jailed his opponents on what were seen as trumped-up charges and turned a blind eye as leaders of the governing National Front coalition personally profited from their political positions. His virulent Malay nationalism alienated Malaysia’s sizable Chinese and Indian minorities.

In this week’s elections, Mr. Mahathir delivered Malaysia’s first post-ethnic vote, attracting Malaysians of all backgrounds to the opposition.

“We’ve talked so long about different categories of Malaysians, all these boxes of people,” said Fahmi Fadzil, who won a parliamentary seat for the opposition People’s Justice Party despite extensive government gerrymandering in his district. “This election is about uniting us, not dividing us.”

News Analysis: Malaysia Finds an Unlikely Champion of Democracy: Its Ex-StrongmanNews Analysis: Malaysia Finds an Unlikely Champion of Democracy: Its Ex-Strongman

Even some of his fiercest enemies have come to see Mr. Mahathir in a different light.

“I trust him today because at this time and age, he is more interested in leaving the right legacy for Malaysians and to set his record right in the history books,” said Tony Pua, an opposition member of Parliament who was re-elected Wednesday with a record number of votes. “If wealth and power were his ambitions, there are much easier routes he could have taken.”

Still, Mr. Mahathir is an unlikely avatar of democracy, particularly one in which diversity is championed.

More than anything, what bound Pakatan Harapan, Mr. Mahathir’s coalition, was revulsion for Mr. Najib, who has been tainted by accusations of immense greed and graft during his nine years as prime minister.

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