Malaysia shows what happens to authoritarian leaders who lose their authority

Demanding change.
Demanding change.
Image: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha
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A massive protest is planned in Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, tomorrow, where tens of thousands of people will demand institutional changes over the theft of billions of dollars from a national wealth fund linked to prime minister Najib Razak.

One of the voices calling for Malaysians to take to the streets belongs to Mahathir Mohamad, the 91-year-old former prime minister whose rule was marked by soaring economic growth and the ruthless crushing of political dissent and civil society.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad waves as he attends a rally organised by pro-democracy group "Bersih" (Clean) near Central Market in Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur
Mahathir at one of his surprise appearances at a Bersih rally in 2015.
Image: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Now Mahathir finds himself siding with protestors in the crosshairs of police water cannons and tear gas. Police have deemed the protests illegal and have warned that they will take action against protestors.

It’s the tale of an authoritarian ruler who’s lost his authority, and could now use the help of some of those democratic institutions he undermined over a lifetime—a scenario that the world might easily relate to with the election of Donald Trump, who’s exhibiting signs of authoritarianism (paywall) himself.

Mahathir appeared in a video (link in Malay) on Nov. 16 urging Malaysians to participate in the protest, the fifth such event since 2007 organized by Bersih, an electoral reform group whose name means “clean” in Malay. The country is in “a state of panic” because of debt incurred by Najib’s government that can’t be repaid by the government, he said. He added:

“I hope all Malaysians will join this rally by Bersih because their goal is to find a way to heal our country through changing the government, so that we have a government that is no longer led by a person who has been accused of stealing so much money.”

Malaysians are agog that the former prime minister, the archetypal strongman who sacked top judges with impunity, jailed dozens of dissidents without trial, and fired and arrested his former deputy, is now asking for street demonstrations to change the government. “In my wildest imagination, I did not ever think that I will see this happening!” wrote one reader of Malaysiakini, one of the country’s few independent news organizations.

Mahathir hasn’t become a democracy activist for nothing, of course. As chairman of a new party led by ousted officials including a former deputy prime minister and his own son, Mukhriz Mahathir, he would gain if Najib falls.

Even as Mahathir bent Malaysia’s democratic institutions to his will over his 22-year tenure, he is now up against the very forces he helped assemble. Najib has used tactics straight from Mahathir’s manual to stay in power, including cracking down on a free press and forcefully repressing party dissent—with quite a few new methods thrown in for good measure.

“Mahathir left the legacy of centralized institutions, but Najib has developed them in his own mold and weakened checks further in his control of resources and the economy,” says Bridget Welsh, an analyst of Malaysian politics at National Taiwan University.

As for Mahathir, he claims a long scheduled commitment means he’ll be out of the country on Saturday, when the protest is planned. He didn’t quite rule out attendance—he made surprise appearances at last year’s Bersih rally—but he has already added his voice to those clamoring for change in Malaysia.

This story was updated with a quote from Bridget Welsh.