By Hadi Azmi and N. Nantha
Ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad’s opposition alliance scored a historic victory Thursday in Malaysia’s 14th General Election, ousting the Barisan Nasional government which had ruled the country since independence six decades ago.
The 92-year-old Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) bloc had secured 113 seats to gain a simple majority in the 222-member parliament and form the federal government, according to official Election Commission results posted online at 5 a.m. Thursday (local time).
Tainted by corruption allegations, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional got only 79 seats, ejecting him from government leadership after being at the helm for about a decade.
The Pakatan coalition comprised several opposition parties, including Mahathir’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), the People’s Justice Party (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the faith-based National Trust Party (Amanah).
All campaigned under the banner of PKR, the party of jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim who is expected to take over from Mahathir after he is released next month and gains a royal pardon.
The move to run under a common logo in the election came after the authorities rejected Pakatan’s application for registration as a political coalition and also de-listed Bersatu as a party.
Under the country’s electoral system, the party with a simple majority of seats in the 222-member parliament can form the government.
During the 2013 election, BN lost the majority vote but pulled in 133 seats.
Analysts were surprised by the unassailable opposition lead. Independent polls conducted before the election had indicated that Najib would win by a small margin while losing the popular vote for the second time.
Mahathir immediately gave an assurance that the new Pakatan government would not go on a witch hunt, but he quickly added that the law would take its course.
“We are not seeking revenge. What we want to do is to restore the rule of law. If anybody broke the law, they will be tried,” he said at a pre-dawn press conference.
Najib, 64, has been buffeted by a scandal over 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund from which billions of dollars were allegedly siphoned off.
The U.S. Justice Department says $4.5 billion was looted from 1MBD by associates of Najib, including $700 million that landed in his private bank accounts. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Mahathir and the opposition had used Najib’s link to the corruption scandal as a key theme of their election campaign.
Nonagenarian Mahathir had ruled the Muslim-majority nation for 22 years, from 1981 to 2003, and came out of retirement to take on his former protégé Najib.
He has promised to hand over power to once arch-rival Anwar Ibrahim, who is due to be released from prison on June 8. Anwar had been convicted for a second time on sodomy charges, which, he said, were concocted by Najib’s government to eliminate the threat he posed to its hold on power.
Mahathir said Thursday that he would push for a royal pardon for Anwar so that he could take over as premier.
The Election Commission reported 70 percent of about 15 million registered voters had cast their ballots across the country.
The turnout appeared considerably lower than the 85 percent recorded in the previous general election in 2013, officials said.
Even before the official results were announced, Mahathir claimed victory.
“We need to have only 112 seats and it would seem that we have practically achieved that figure and the figure for the BN is very much less than that,” Mahathir declared.
Barisan Nasional, which has led Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, said it would respect the election results.
“Obviously we are going to accept the will of the people but the prime minister will be issuing a statement,” said Khairy Jamaluddin, the head of the youth wing of the United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) party, the linchpin of Barisan.
“We need to make sure the election result is respected and we move on,” he said.
Najib, who heads UMNO, had earlier chaired a meeting of the UMNO top brass at his residence and was scheduled to hold a press conference later Thursday.
The meeting included deputy prime minister and UMNO deputy president Zahid Hamid, Defense Minister and UMNO vice-president Hishamuddin Hussein and Khairy, the youth minister.
Mahathir has thrown his lot in with an alliance packed with parties that he crushed while in power, which includes Anwar.
Analysts had widely predicted that Najib’s BN would retain power mainly due to a newly re-jiggered electoral system, which, critics said, had been heavily manipulated.
There was no immediate response from the BN on the results.
The Election Commission called for patience after Mahathir accused it of delaying the results.
“Please give us some time for us to make an official announcement after all the results are verified,” said Hisham Abdullah, the commission’s chairman.
“We are still receiving results from states as well as from head of voting stations as well as returning officers. I am sure the people are waiting and we understand this.”
“I’m sure those who win are anxious to take the oath of prime ministership and form the government. We ourselves have nothing up our sleeve, so please be a little patient.”
The commission also announced that Mahathir’s party had retained control of two states – Selangor and Penang – and won three other states – Negeri Sembilan, Melaka and Johor, the birthplace of Najib’s UMNO party.
Barisan retained Perlis and Pahang states while the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) retained Kelantan and wrested control of Terengganu from Barisan. PAS had won 18 parliamentary seats, meanwhile.
In a blow to the ruling bloc, the leaders of its Chinese and Indian component parties both lost their seats.
Liow Tiong Lai, president of Malaysian Chinese Association, lost his seat in Bentong, Pahang state, and S. Subramaniam, president of the Malaysian Indian Congress, did not win his constituency of Segamat, Johor state.
Najib expressed concern over personal attacks during the election campaign.
“It’s not been that tense, but it has been quite vicious in the content of the personal attacks which doesn’t reflect a mature democracy,” he said about the election campaign, according to aljazeera.com. “But the most important thing is for the people to decide on the destiny of this nation.”