Malaysia's ruling regime for the past six decades has been voted out, with Mahathir Mohamad leading the Opposition Alliance to a highly unlikely victory.
The Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition — with major party the United Malays National Organisation — has been in power since Malaysia gained independence in 1957, but a corruption scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak has signalled the end of its reign.
Coming out of retirement to return to politics, former long-time prime minister and now head of the Opposition Alliance — Mahathir Mohamad, defied the odds to prove the more popular choice.
He will be sworn in before the end of the week, after a representative of Malaysia’s constitutional monarchy contacted Mahathir to declare the 92-year-old the victor.
He will become the oldest world leader, dethroning even Queen Elizabeth II.
Mohamad ruled for 22 years until 2003, and is credited with the modernisation of the nation.
Corruption Mahathir vows to stamp out
They were once allies, but Razak’s entanglement in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MBD) corruption case inspired Mahathir to challenge for the leadership of the country.
Najib set up 1MBD in 2009 as a state investment fund (wholly owned by the Malaysian Finance Ministry) aimed at transforming Kuala Lumpur into a financial centre, and providing the country’s economy with a much-needed shot in the arm.
However, it made headlines in 2015 after it missed payments for some of the $11 billion it owed to financial institutions. The Wall Street Journal then reported it had witnessed a paper trail indicating $700 million had been transferred from 1MBD to Najib’s personal bank accounts.
The US Justice Department alleges that at least $4.5 billion has been stolen in total. Investigations are ongoing in the US, Singapore, Switzerland and other countries, and while Najib denies any wrongdoing and has been cleared by the Malaysian attorney-general, he is still in the crosshairs of US prosecutors.
Najib visited US President Donald Trump and other senior officials at the White House last September, but neither party mentioned the probe.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the Malaysian people have clearly made up their minds.
Tens of thousands of protestors marched the streets of Kuala Lumpur in 2016, demanding Najib stand down, and the Election Commission revealed the Barisan Nasional had only won 79 seats out of 222, compared with the Opposition Alliance’s (consisting of Pakatan Harapan and a small ally) count of 121.
In his victory press conference, Mahathir said: “We are not seeking revenge. We want to restore the rule of law.”
In his final appeal to the Malaysian people, Mahathir stirred plenty of emotion, declaring he was not after wealth or rank, but saw the opportunity as the “last time I can contribute in this fight for our country”.
“A vote for Pakatan will save our country from this ‘cash is king’ leadership. In their eyes, our pride can be bought with money. Don’t let our people be humiliated, belittled and made fools of,” he added.
Suva Selvan, a 48-year-old doctor, said the change of government was cause for optimism.
“I feel that with this change we probably can see something better in the future… our hope for the future is a better government, fair, free and united,” he told AFP.