In the last month, we have witnessed elections in two very comparable countries, Malaysia and Venezuela, with results that could hardly be more dissimilar.
In the recent Malaysian elections — in a drama worthy of Shakespeare — the voters ended 61 years of unbroken rule by the Barisan Nasional party dominated by its ethnic Malay component, UMNO.
Longtime Prime Minister Najib Razak called the elections supremely confident that a proven formula of money politics, thinly veiled racist appeals, a controlled press and extreme gerrymandering of electoral districts would return him to power against a fractured and demoralized opposition. The most prominent opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, languished in jail, convicted of “sodomy.” Even if he were released, he would be barred from re-entering politics. A massive corruption scandal involving the theft of, not millions but billions, in state funds had been effectively swept under the rug. A newly installed attorney general announced that there was nothing to investigate. His predecessor was fired when he showed a disturbing inclination to ask questions about the missing money.
Meanwhile, China pledged tens of billions of dollars for dubious infrastructure projects in Malaysia — money that could be used to make the thefts disappear from the government’s balance sheet. Malaysia’s once vibrant democracy had become a kleptocracy. But this deeply dispiriting prospect was transformed by the unlikeliest of developments. A 92-year-old former Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir bin Mohammed (a medical doctor), once a political mentor to Najib, announced he would come out of retirement in a bid to unite and lead the opposition in the election campaign. In the unlikely event that he won, he pledged to seek a royal pardon for Anwar and then install him as deputy prime minister with the expectation that he would become prime minister “in one or two years.” Meanwhile, Anwar’s wife ran as his stand-in as deputy leader of the opposition.
Then it happened. An electorate sick of corruption and cronyism and nostalgic for the days when everything seemed better under Mahathir voted in numbers that overwhelmed all the schemes that the ruling party had devised to guarantee a victory. Much of the opposition’s success was due to young voters who wanted to move past traditional communal politics where every policy and every person was identified in terms of race, religion or ethnicity. They were tired of being compartmentalized as Malays, Chinese and Indians. They simply wanted to be Malaysians.
After several hours of uncertainty following announcement of the final tally, while Najib apparently sought to buy off victorious opposition candidates, the king (reluctantly) turned to Mahathir to form a government. He, in turn, made good on his pledge to secure Anwar’s pardon and release and replaced the attorney general with his predecessor. Najib’s passport was confiscated and Malaysians have been transfixed as police carried out one raid after another in full public view, seizing vast quantities of personal luxury goods from Najib’s various properties.
What does it all mean? At a minimum, these events offer a hopeful future for Malaysia with the likely emergence of a competitive two-party system, a restoration of the rule of law, the modernization of politics beyond communal identity, and the emergence of a new generation of leaders. Anwar is hardly new, but in the current context, he looks that way. More important, he is extremely capable and devoted to the modernization of his country. Finally, the thefts will be investigated and in the process, a colossal amount of rot and venality will be exposed. The process will not be pretty, but it will be life giving.
All this contrasts starkly with an election in another “third world” country, Venezuela. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Venezuela, like Malaysia, was a vibrant example of successful modernization. It had a rapidly growing economy with a functioning democracy. Venezuela had seemingly unlimited prospects for prosperity because it possessed the largest oil reserves on the planet. However, in 1998 a leftist ideologue, Hugo Chavez, appealed to grievances among low-income voters and was elected. Chavez was no democrat and he set out to make sure his “Bolivarian Revolution” could not be reversed by any future election. Chavez died in 2013 but his handpicked successor, Nicholas Maduro, (a former bus driver), has followed his lead: state control of the economy and use of oil revenues to buy off key segments of the population including the military.
Anyone who was not ideologically committed to the regime was fired, marginalized or imprisoned. The result has been colossal mismanagement and corruption producing (in the words of a Brookings Institution study) “the country’s slide … to a socialist authoritarian system stricken with hyperinflation, rising poverty, declining oil production and record levels of violent crime.”
Conditions have become so dire that hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans (many of them professionals) have fled the country in search of medicine and food.
The recent election that gave Maduro another term was not just rigged; it was a complete sham. The process has left Venezuela locked into a downward economic spiral with an alienated population and a discredited government.
As a consequence of these events, the prospects for Malaysia and Venezuela differ dramatically. In Malaysia, the words “prosperity” and “democracy” have real meaning. In Venezuela, they are a bad joke. Explaining how these two very comparable countries arrived at such different outcomes is far from easy. But if nothing else, it is clear that political leaders — their competence and their values — still are profoundly important.