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News Analysis: Unlikely Champion of Democracy Rises in a Region of Strongmen

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The story line is a familiar one these days: A populist strongman with a long record of racially divisive commentary prevails in the polls.

But Mahathir Mohamad, who was sworn in as prime minister of Malaysia on Thursday, was not swept to power by the kind of nationalist demagoguery that has captivated electorates in places like Hungary, India and the Philippines.

Instead, Mr. Mahathir was at the head of a multiethnic opposition that ousted a government long dependent on stoking the fears of Malaysia’s Malay Muslim majority to prolong its grip on power. That Mr. Mahathir, 92, had for decades toughened the network of race and patronage that contributed to Malaysia’s political sclerosis is just one of the many surprises of the national elections on Wednesday.

“It has produced a multiracial — not Malay or Chinese — tsunami of protest against the corruption, economic mismanagement and abuse of political power,” said Lim Teck Ghee, a public policy analyst and author of the book “Challenging the Status Quo in Malaysia.” “It has avoided racial and religious rancor and acrimony, which would have left a contentious and dangerous aftermath.”

Few people expected Mr. Mahathir’s opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan — an unwieldy collection of reformists, nationalists, Islamists, ethnic minorities and former enemies of Mr. Mahathir — to hold together, much less shatter an entrenched political system that has held sway in Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957.

But Mr. Mahathir, who now ranks as the world’s oldest serving prime minister, has long been adept at staging unlikely political plot twists. And the voter outrage that fueled his comeback is a burst of hope in Southeast Asia, where democracy has ebbed in the face of populist autocrats.

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“After independence, this is probably the most important occasion in our political history,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, a longtime political analyst who ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in this election. “It paves the way for political competition.”

Although people-power revolutions late in the last century resulted in the overthrow of dictators like Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Suharto of Indonesia, strongman rule has returned in force to Southeast Asia.

President Rodrigo Duterte has kick-started a drug war in the Philippines that has killed thousands, while Prime Minister Hun Sen has systematically destroyed even the semblance of a political opposition in Cambodia. Thailand has reverted to military rule, with elections repeatedly postponed.


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