KUALA LUMPUR—During tonight’s Democratic debate, three septuagenarian challengers will vie for the chance to take on a septuagenarian president. Or, as the 94-year-old prime minister of Malaysia might call them: whippersnappers.
It’s not unusual for kings or dictators to reign until they fall victim to Father Time. The politburos of China, Vietnam, and the former Soviet Union have generally been gerontocracies. Until the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, every few decades Saudi Arabia saw a transition from an “old guard” to an only-slightly less aged “young guard”. But examples of oldsters winning office in a democracy are more difficult to come by.
Mahathir Mohamad—“Dr. M.,” as he is often called here—first became Malaysia’s prime minister in 1981, and held power, unchallenged, for more than two decades, before voluntarily retiring at age 78. He enjoyed his golden years as many pensioners do: indulging in conspiracy theories, tossing out “grandpa, please” displays of casual bigotry, and carping about how the upstarts were mucking things up at the office. Then, in 2018, he sent shock waves through the nation by reentering politics to unseat the party he himself had led. In American terms: It was as if Ronald Reagan had lived on for a few decades after his presidency, and then won a new term—as a Democrat. Like a Gipper redux, Mahathir’s ideas and language can seem trapped in the 1980s. But that hasn’t seemed to hurt him yet. Although he ran as a transitional figure, he shows no signs of stepping down—and he’s so popular that even the opposition has reportedly urged him to serve out a full five-year term.