May 10, 2018 / 3:17 PM / 11 days ago

Explainer - How Malaysia's once-powerful ruling party crashed

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian voters dealt a devastating blow that few had seen coming this week to Barisan Nasional (BN), the coalition that has ruled the Southeast Asian country since it won independence from Britain in 1957.

The following is an explanation of how seasoned campaigner and long-time leader Mahathir Mohamad, 92, led an opposition alliance to victory over Prime Minister Najib Razak’s BN.

THE MAHATHIR FACTOR

Mahathir’s decision to quit the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), BN’s dominant partner and a defender of Muslim ethnic-Malays, meant that the opposition now had a strong leader who could appeal to the country’s majority.

Mahathir, who was prime minister from 1981 to 2003, enjoys a reputation as the father of Malaysia’s economic modernisation.

Najib’s campaign tried to paint Mahathir as a traitor to the Malay cause, but the nonagenarian’s charisma and engaging oratory drew crowds running to thousands at campaign stops ahead of the election.

Known for his ability to spot trends, Mahathir latched on to social media, broadening his appeal beyond the traditional campaign stump to Twitter and Facebook Live, where he drew tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of viewers.

RULING COALITION’S WIPEOUT

Najib’s coalition won just 79 of parliament’s 222 seats on May 9, a collapse from the 133 seats it won in the 2013 election, when BN lost the popular vote which was its worst-ever poll performance at the time.

Malaysia practices a first-past-the-post system, where the first party or coalition that secures a simple majority of 112 parliamentary seats gains the right to form the government.

Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, won 121 seats.

MALAY SWING

A popular revolt among the ethnic-Malay majority, who account for over 60 percent of the population of about 32 million, was key to why Najib’s coalition lost. Analysts say BN was too complacent about the Malay support it always enjoyed.

The government had expected the Islamic party, PAS, to get hardly any parliament seats but still split the opposition vote in its favour. But, as it turned out, PAS won 18 seats, which meant it actually took Malay votes from Najib’s BN.

Tapping into growing anger over rising living costs and the introduction of a broad-based consumption tax, Mahathir drove a successful campaign that painted Najib as a corrupt leader who was using public funds to cover up his excesses.

Mahathir’s campaign strategy was particularly effective in poorer rural Malay heartlands, where rising costs hit hard.

CRUMBLED FORTS

The southern state of Johor, a traditional UMNO stronghold and the party’s birthplace, crumbled under Mahathir’s challenge.

Najib’s coalition also suffered a severe setback in what he had called “fixed deposit” states of Sabah and Sarawak in east Malaysia, where rising living costs coupled with depressed wages cost him a significant share of their crucial 56 parliament seats.

In the 2013 election, BN won 47 of these two Borneo states’ seats but this week saw its tally tumble to 29.

CORRUPTION TAINT

Najib was beset by a multi-billion-dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). News broke in 2015 that about $700 million allegedly stolen from 1MDB had made its way into his personal bank accounts. He denied any wrongdoing and was cleared by the country’s attorney-general.

The scandal was the reason Mahathir turned on Najib, his former protege, and decided to lead a push to topple him.

On the campaign trail, Mahathir harped on the 1MDB scandal and a popular perception that Najib’s family led a lavish lifestyle. This perception was fuelled by U.S. Department of Justice filings in a civil lawsuit indicating that nearly $30 million of the money stolen was used to buy jewellery for his wife, including a rare 22-carat pink diamond set in a necklace.

Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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