As political upheavals go, the electoral outcome in Malaysia last week was a major earthquake. After decades, the Barisan Nasional (national front) coalition, led by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), suffered its first-ever defeat at the hands of Pakatan Harapan (alliance of hope).

Umno has reach in the smallest kampung (village), and nothing—not even allegations of corruption or authoritarianism—seemed to have had the force to dislodge it from power in the past, even as the younger, post-independence Malaysians, disenchanted with Umno’s manipulative politics, clamoured for change. Umno squashed dissent ruthlessly, tinkered with electoral boundaries through rampant gerrymandering, and kept winning.

And yet, seeing the outcome last week as a harbinger of real transformation in Malaysian politics overstates the case. For, leading the Pakatan is the 92-year-old former prime minister (PM), the formidable Mahathir Mohammed, who has crafted a remarkable political comeback. His unexpected ally is the 70-year-old Anwar Ibrahim, released Wednesday from prison, where he was serving a controversial prison term, and pardoned after the elections. Once qualified, he will have to win a by-election to parliament and then may possibly replace Mahathir as PM.

That might seem like poetic justice; it is what should have occurred more honourably two decades earlier. For, in the 1990s, Anwar was Mahathir’s heir-apparent; his popular finance minister, who tried to reform opaque business practices, just as speculators attacked the currency, the ringgit, expecting Malaysia to be the next domino to fall, after the Thai and Indonesian economic collapse of 1997. Some debt-ridden businesses were close to Mahathir, and the astute Mahathir foresaw what lay ahead if Anwar’s economic reforms continued unhindered.

So he sacked Anwar. I was a correspondent in South-East Asia at the time, reporting frequently out of Malaysia, and the mood was electric as people anticipated imminent change, raising slogans on the streets, demanding reformasi (reforms). Anwar addressed large rallies.

Anwar, a soft-spoken, polite man, presented himself as a liberal alternative in a South-East Asia run by older men of an earlier era. He wrote The Asian Renaissance, and during one of our conversations, expressed fondness for the ideas of M.K. Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Jayaprakash Narayan. Anwar had been in jail earlier under the Internal Security Act, and was a leader in his youth of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim, the Muslim youth movement of Malaysia). His critics alleged he had ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. But Anwar looked like the transformed liberal who would shake up Malaysia, even South-East Asia. He threatened a system getting atrophied.

Mahathir had tamed an earlier rebellion by another deputy—Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who came close to removing him as party leader. He had formed a party, Semangat ’46 (Spirit of ’46), only to return to Umno later, chastened. Mahathir imposed capital controls to halt the ringgit’s slide, and, more crucially, jailed Anwar. In custody, Anwar was beaten up, and, when brought to the court, had a bruised eye. Mahathir left office on his own terms in 2003, making way for Abdullah Badawi. In 2009, Najib Razak became PM—son of a PM (Abdul Razak) and nephew of another (Hussein Onn).

When released, Anwar tied up with the opposition, and, in subsequent elections, inched closer to defeating Umno. But while the opposition made gains in cities, the countryside remained with Umno, ensuring the party’s victories. Removing Umno from power seemed like a middle-class fantasy.

For reasons not entirely clear, as this year’s elections approached, Mahathir felt it was time for change. One trigger was the gigantic scandal engulfing the state-run 1Malaysia Development Berhad, where $700 million mysteriously appeared in the personal accounts of Najib. Mahathir thought it was time for atonement, and allied with Anwar’s party and others to defeat Umno, his former party.

The transformation in Malaysia, then, is far more complex than a simple narrative of democratic forces defeating a decayed order. Mahathir is the father of Malay assertiveness—in 1970, he wrote Dilema Melayu (The Malay Dilemma), a book that articulated Malay bitterness over the ethnic group’s marginalization and called for affirmative action to reduce Chinese economic dominance. In 1981, he became PM, and continued policies favouring Malay bumiputras (sons of the soil). A Malay middle class emerged (which my former colleague Bill Mellor called bumioisie, or bumiputra bourgeoisie). They bought new condos and raced their Malaysian-made Proton Saga cars along the spine of the Malaysian peninsula, the North-South Expressway. It also created what I once called bumillionaires, or bumiputra millionaires, who got rich through infrastructure contracts.

Anwar’s reforms would have attacked the cronyism that flowered under Mahathir; to see Mahathir as the harbinger of change and a new liberal order stretches credulity. Malaysian academic Khoo Boo Teik appropriately titled his biography Paradoxes Of Mahathirism.

If Anwar becomes PM, he would have to show Mandela-like forgiveness towards his tormentors, which include not only Umno, but also his ally, Mahathir, now PM again. Mahathir has made all the right moves, including bringing in competent former officials and economists as advisers. Real reformasi will need bold steps in uncharted territory.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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