KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s former authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as prime minister on Thursday, cementing a stunning political comeback and a historic change in government after leading opposition parties to their first election victory in six decades.
The ceremony before Malaysia’s king at the official state palace in Kuala Lumpur ended a day of uncertainty during which rumors swirled that the National Front, Malaysia’s perennial ruling party, would try to stay in power. People waiting outside the palace cheered, waved opposition flags and sounded car horns.
The election result is a political earthquake for the Muslim-majority country, sweeping aside the 60-year rule of the National Front and its leader Najib Razak, whose reputation was tarnished by a monumental corruption scandal, a crackdown on dissent and a new sales tax that hurt his coalition’s poor rural supporters.
It was also a surprising exception to backsliding on democratic values in Southeast Asia, a region of more than 600 million people where governments of countries including Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines have swung toward harsh authoritarian rule. Amnesty International said Malaysia’s first-ever change in government is an opportunity to “eradicate repressive policies” and put human rights first.
“We need to have this government today without delay,” Mahathir, 92, said before the ceremony. “There is a lot of work to be done. You know the mess the country is in and we need to attend to this mess as soon as possible and that means today.”
Many analysts had thought the National Front might lose the popular vote but cling to a parliamentary majority due to an electoral system that increases the ballot power of rural Malays, the coalition’s core supporters. After the result of the election became clear, supporters of the incoming government took to the streets to celebrate.
People stood on roadsides waving the white, blue and red flag of the triumphant opposition alliance. Cars honked their horns as they sped past.
“I’m so happy,” said Zarini Najibuddin while waving the opposition flag. “I hope we’ll have a better Malaysia now. Malaysia reborn!”
Ibrahim Suffian, co-founder of the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, said the new government will have to contend with “enormous forces of inertia and resistance from within the government elites.”
“The bureaucracy and the rest of the government apparatus has never been used to this idea, having been, you know, more than 60 years under the same political party,” he said.
Mahathir, prime minister for 22 years until stepping down in 2003, was credited with modernizing Malaysia but was also known as a heavy-handed leader who imprisoned opponents and subjugated the courts.
Angered by the graft scandal at state investment fund 1MDB, Mahathir emerged from political retirement and joined the opposition in an attempt to oust Najib, his former protege.
The U.S. Justice Department says $4.5 billion was looted from 1MBD by associates of Najib between 2009 and 2014, including $700 million that landed in Najib’s bank account and a $23 million pink diamond necklace bought for Najib’s wife. He has denied wrongdoing.
Mahathir said the new government will not conduct a witch hunt, but Najib will have to face the consequences if he has broken the law.
Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at John Cabot University in Rome, said it was hugely ironic that Mahathir, who damaged Malaysia’s democratic institutions with his strong-arm rule, has returned as its political savior.
“It is not just a comeback,” she said. “It is about making amends about his mistakes and moving Malaysia forward.”
Mahathir has said the new government would seek the release and full pardon of Anwar Ibrahim, an opposition icon imprisoned on sodomy charges that Anwar and his supporters said were fabricated by the National Front to crush the opposition. Anwar, whose sentence ends on June 8, should be free to participate in politics, he said. Anwar, a former deputy prime minister in the ruling party, was also imprisoned under Mahathir following a power struggle.
On the economic front, Mahathir vowed to cancel a goods and service tax imposed since 2015 and said the government could also renegotiate the terms of Chinese loans for infrastructure projects.
He criticized a “fake news” law pushed through parliament by the National Front during the lead-up to the election. Mahathir is being investigated under that law for claiming a plane he was to travel on was sabotaged during the campaign.
Najib, 64, said he accepted the “verdict of the people.”
The National Front “will honor the principle of democracy in the parliament,” he said.
Story: Eileen Ng, Stephen Wright