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Not Exactly a Fresh Face in Malaysia

Not Exactly a Fresh Face in Malaysia

It’s not often that you look to a 92-year old former strongman as the best hope for positive political change in a corrupted system, but that’s exactly what’s happening right now in Malaysia.

As the country heads for general elections tomorrow, the popular former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was born when Calvin Coolidge was the US president, is leading the opposition against the current prime minister, Najib Razak, who is fighting to hold onto power amid a massive corruption scandal and flagging popular support.

Mahathir, as a reminder, ruled Malaysia from 1981 until 2003 with a strong hand — jailing opponents, cracking down on the press, and railing against the West. He oversaw an economic miracle in the country, and he famously defied the IMF in 1998, imposing capital controls rather than accepting austerity measures during the Asian financial crisis — the IMF later admitted that he’d gotten it right.

Now after several years out of the political limelight, he is partnering with people he once jailed, taking on a man who was once his protégé, and seeking to knock his old party out of power for the first time since Malaysia’s independence.

Most observers think Najib will squeak out a victory — lavish spending, nationalist rhetoric, and jerrymandering will all help. But Mahathir is set to give him a stiff challenge. We’ll wait for the results on Thursday morning. Irrespective of the outcome, Malaysians seeking a new generation of leaders may still have to wait a bit longer than that.

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