“Saviour” Politics and Malaysia’s 2018 Electoral Democratic Breakthrough: Rethinking Explanatory Narratives and Implications

Bridget Welsh

Abstract


In understanding Malaysia’s surprise 14th General Election, this article argues for the need to rethink how we understand elections. We need to bring together macro socio-political forces with more micro-level evolving phenomena in the campaign, within political institutions, and in voting behaviour. Rather than buck international trends, Malaysia’s socio-political conditions before the election – political polarisation, a rise of anger, increasing economic vulnerabilities, as well as increased nationalist and populist sentiments – echoed global trends and served as fertile ground for political change. It was however three sufficient conditions that brought about the political breakthrough: the impact of emotional campaigning through social media, the deinstitutionalisation of the dominant Malay party, United Malays National Organisation, and the failure to win over young voters – all factors that tie closely with the macro forces shaping the country. Given the factors that shaped the electoral outcome and Malaysia’s “saviour politics,” it is suggested that the government turnover was more about breaking with the past than embracing democracy. As such, there will be constraints placed on expanding democracy going forward.

Keywords


Malaysia; GE14; Mahathir Mohamad; saviour; emotions; UMNO; youth; deinstitutionalisation; populism; nationalism; political polarisation

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