KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - Zainul Azizan burst into tears and began hugging everyone around him after the world’s oldest opposition leader, 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, announced he had defeated the world’s longest reigning elected government early Thursday morning.
“Reformasi, Reformasi,” the crowd around him shouted, the name of the movement launched 20 years ago when their leader, Anwar Ibrahim, was jailed, ironically on the orders of Mahathir.
“I never think that in my lifetime we will win with the children to see,” the 63-year-old party member said, sobbing in front of ecstatic comrades at Padang Timur park just outside Kuala Lumpur. “Because if we lose this we lose 20 years,” he said. “God listened to us.”
A woman sobbed beside him with her baby boy in her arms then leapt onto the stage and declared “this is the mother of all elections and he’s the father of all leaders” to the roar of the crowd.
After more than 60 years of unbroken rule, Malaysia’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party and its partners in the Barisan Nasional coalition had been overthrown by one of its most famous former leaders in a spectacular upset.
Mahathir had taken the extraordinary step of leaving retirement to join his former rivals in the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, including Anwar, to challenge another former protégé Najib Razak.
At the request of Mahathir Friday, Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, Sultan Muhammad V., agreed to pardon Anwar, 20 years after the Reformasi movement was born when he was jailed on sodomy in charges in 1998 on orders from Mahathir.
“It is going to be a full pardon, which of course means that he should not only be pardoned, he should be released immediately when he is pardoned. After that he’ll be free to participate fully in politics,” Mahathir told a news conference Friday.
Asked about his pre-election pledge to hand over power to Anwar, Mahathir indicated this could be a lengthy process.
Mahathir reiterated the party’s intention to scrap the country’s deeply unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST), but said the coalition’s first step would be to announce ministers for 10 of the most pressing Cabinet portfolios Saturday.
He said ongoing evidence of corrupt attempts to buy candidates in states like Sabah were being investigated, as would other recent instances of major political corruption, stressing “we are not taking revenge.”
The result marks a powerful condemnation of Najib, whose reputation has been scorched by his connection to one of the world’s biggest corruption scandals.
U.S. prosecutors allege $3.5 billion was pilfered from the state’s sovereign wealth fund, 1 Malaysia Development Berhard (1MDB) while Najib chaired it, with about $700 million landing directly into his own bank account.
Najib had also come under fire during the campaign for a raft of measures he took to boost his chances, including drastically redrawing electoral boundaries to favor his party.
“The re-delineation made people angry, the anti-fake news law made people angry and then they announce polling day on a Wednesday, which has never happened before,” the opposition leader’s daughter Marina Mahathir said at a campaign rally the day before the vote.
Khairy Jamulludin, UMNO’s youth chief, said on Instagram that the people had spoken “loud and clear” and called for a smooth transition of power.
“It is now time for those who have been freely chosen by the people of Malaysia to lead our country,” he wrote. “I will hold you accountable on behalf of our people as a member of the opposition. Just as you did previously.”
Najib himself has said he accepts “the will of the people” but offered no congratulation to his opponents and gave no insight into his party’s plans.
His failure to dominate the conservative rural strongholds that UMNO had been so confident would save them from any opposition tsunami on election day shocked his party.
They hoped issues such as public anger over the rising cost of living in the wake of the vastly unpopular GST, introduced in 2015, or the 1MDB scandal, would not penetrate into these areas.
But the vast numbers of migrants who had moved from the countryside to Kuala Lumpur in search of work only to find themselves struggling on the fringes of a massive and expensive city, took those messages back home with them.
And a social media campaign with the hashtag #PulangMengundi, or “return to vote,” that connected those struggling with the cost to travel to their electorate with donations went viral, raising tens of thousands of dollars.
In Mahathir, doubters also had a candidate with proven track record of 20 years of conservative governance.
Perhaps more than anything though, the scale of Najib’s scandals simply gave voters a good excuse to finally change government after so many decades.