This chapter argues that the rise of the influence of the Opposition during the 1990s was primarily due to the outcome of key policies implemented by former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, on the economy and Malaysian society. One key reason why Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi managed to lead the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) coalition to a phenomenal victory in the 11th general election in 2004 was his pledge to introduce economic reforms to respond to the needs of the poor, especially rural Malays, and to rectify social ills, particularly rampant corruption, that had emerged during the Mahathir era.
This chapter first provides an overview of Mahathir's economic agenda for Malaysia, focusing on the outcome of his developmental plan. The second segment outlines Abdullah's promises of change following his ascendancy to the premiership and during the 2004 elections campaign. An analysis is then provided of electoral trends during the period 1990 to 2004, to support the contention that the Opposition's rise during the 1990s was primarily the result of Mahathir's economic policies.
The chapter concludes by arguing that if the BN is not able to deliver on its economic reform pledges, the decline of the Opposition may only be a temporary phase. However, as the electoral trends over this nearly 15-year period also indicate important demographic changes in Malaysia, the possibility of the emergence of a strong Opposition will depend on the implementation of institutional reforms that adequately respond to changes in society.
Malaysia under Mahathir
In October 2003, Mahathir relinquished power to his chosen successor, Abdullah, after having served more than 22 years as prime minister of Malaysia. During his tenure, the political system under Mahathir had come to be one characterised by a concentration of power in the hands of the executive. The structure of the state had become so extremely personalised that the term “Mahathir hegemony” was liberally applied in most analyses of Malaysian politics.