The leader of Southeast Asia’s fourth-largest economy, Mahathir Mohamad, has stepped down, leaving behind his long-term secret life. It would be easy to dismiss this as irrelevant at a time when the final choice between two contenders for the premiership is just days away. But in the long run, it may have a much greater significance. It’s not simply the symbolism of Malaysia’s first prime minister changing positions after having two decades in power — an election is just days away. It is his departure that could actually start making a real difference.
For all Mahathir’s flaws, the scene is set for a dramatic exit. His successor, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, a leading campaigner against corruption allegations, is a worthy figure, and has a solid mandate from the opposition’s electoral success in last year’s election. But Mahathir’s ability to build a career out of opposition politics is limited. He’s not easily persuaded to ease into a new role. Unlike India’s Narendra Modi, who took office from a weakened predecessor in 2014, Mahathir’s experience shows him to be an intractable character. At 92, he’s also approaching a point in which he cannot still be relied on.
Given all this, it’s possible that Mahathir is planning his departure from politics. For if his retirement will be smoothly negotiated, it will also be free of the hiccups that rocked his latter years in office, when he proved unable to cope with the personal turmoil of running the country when his wife’s support was waning. At the moment, it seems unlikely that Mahathir, who has already lost two wives in his lifetime, has the wits to turn his hand to the serious business of running a fragile democracy. But history suggests that Malaysian politics will have to adapt to new political dynamics.
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