How Ex-Strongman Mahathir Became Malaysia’s Great Democratic Hope

How Ex-Strongman Mahathir Became Malaysia’s Great Democratic Hope
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad during his swearing-in ceremony in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 16, 2018 (AP photo by Yam G-Jun).

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—As Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir Mohamad oversaw crackdowns on the free press. He sought to undermine the country’s independent judiciary. And he arrested and jailed political opponents.

Today, however, the 93-year-old Mahathir is not only back in the prime minister’s office, he’s the face of a once-opposition party now being hailed as Malaysia’s great democratic hope.

It’s hard to overstate the current level of optimism in Malaysia about the country’s political future. In the eyes of many Malaysians, life changed on May 9, when the opposition won a surprise electoral victory and ousted former Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose scandal-tainted UMNO party—which Mahathir once led—had been in power for more than six decades.

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