Jailed former opposition leader and current federal opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Can Multiparty Democracy Work in Multiethnic Malaysia?

Malaysia’s political landscape has been transformed by the ouster of Prime Minister Najib Razak and the ruling United Malays National Organization. But while celebration is in order, a key question remains: can democracy ever truly take root in a country where ethnic, religious, and linguistic divisions run so deep?

PENANG – On May 9, Malaysia’s political canvas was redrawn with a single election. By returning the 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad to the job of prime minister, voters ended 61 years of uninterrupted rule by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Within days, the ousted incumbent, Najib Razak, was under investigation for corruption, and the long-jailed opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, was back in politics.

Astonishingly, no blood was spilled in this “silent revolution.” While that might seem like a low bar, the lack of violence is noteworthy in a country split along religious, ethnic, and linguistic lines.

But while Malaysians continue to celebrate their peaceful democratic transition, a key question remains: Can multiparty democracy flourish in such a divided society?

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