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An Upset in Malaysia: What You Need to Know

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HONG KONG — The opposition victory in Malaysia’s election on Wednesday has put a new focus on the country’s political system, which has been dominated by one party since independence.

Here’s a look at the central questions about Malaysia’s political system and important figures in the handover of power.

Who won?

Mahathir Mohamad, a 92-year-old former prime minister, led an opposition coalition to defeat a former protégé, Prime Minister Najib Razak. Mr. Mahathir served as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, a period of strong growth followed by the Asian financial crisis, from which the country recovered after rejecting austerity policies.

Mr. Mahathir was known for his autocratic tendencies, advocacy of Asian exceptionalism and occasional anti-Semitic jibes that prompted international condemnation. His electoral victory this week required that he work with some of the opposition figures who were his rivals in past decades.

Mr. Mahathir called Thursday for Malaysia’s king to swiftly appoint him prime minister.

Malaysia has a king?

Yes, but it is a position with little parallel. The monarch, officially the “yang di-pertuan agong,” is selected from a group of hereditary rulers who are titular leaders of the Malay states. The position has a five-year term and changes hands in a regular order of rotation.

The current king, Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan, ascended the throne in December 2016.

The royals have limited authority, but under Malaysia’s constitutional monarchy, the king must appoint the prime minister based on who commands the support of a majority of members of the lower house of Parliament.

What will the king do?

Mr. Najib appeared to acknowledge defeat Thursday, saying he would “accept the verdict of the people.” But he also opened the door to some sort of royal intervention, calling on the people of Malaysia to trust the decision of the monarch.

Mr. Mahathir had a bumpy relationship with Malaysia’s royals. He backed greater checks on their powers in the 1990s after scandals including that of a sultan who was accused of killing a golf caddy but avoided prosecution because of legal immunity.

Mr. Mahathir hinted at that legacy in his comments Thursday. “The king is not required to clap,” he said. “He is required to sign.”

What will happen to Najib?

Mr. Najib, 64, has been accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in public money from a government investment fund he once headed. If he is no longer in power, he could face prosecution. The United States Justice Department is investigating the disappearance


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