Malaysia: Disputing elections


On 9 July around 50,000 Malaysians marched peacefully in support of free elections, defying a government prohibition and massive police effort.

Police eventually dispersed demonstrators with water cannons and tear gas and arrested nearly 1,700. Several were injured (including the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim) and one died from injury. Harrowing scenes were shown on news broadcasts around the world, and uploaded to numerous local websites.

Why did this confrontation come about? After all, in recent months Prime Minister Najib Razak has crossed the globe selling Malaysia’s credentials as a democratic and moderate state. Central to his message has been the assertion that elections in Malaysia are free and fair — proven, he says, by the opposition’s large gains in the last national elections.

It is true that in 2008 the opposition won power in five states and cut the government’s national majority to less than the customary two thirds, preventing it from changing the constitution at will. The so-called electoral ‘tsunami’ forced Prime Minister Abdullah to relinquish power one year later.

But this event is hardly proof that elections are free and fair. The opposition countered that if they had been fair the government would have lost their majority altogether. Analysts have long agreed that with government control of the three ‘Ms’ — money, media and machinery (meaning the bureaucracy) — the odds will always be stacked against the opposition.

The formation of ‘The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections’, or Bersih (clean) in 2006 was an attempt by opposition parties and civil rights NGOs to pressure the government into electoral reform. On 10 November 2007 Bersih held peaceful demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur in support of this cause. Around 50,000 took part — a large turnout considering that police had declared the demonstration illegal and made every effort to prevent it. This success has been widely credited with contributing to opposition gains in the 2008 elections.

After retreating into the background Bersih was re-launched in September 2010 as an entirely non-governmental organisation. Bersih 2.0 is chaired by a respected former President of the Malaysian Bar Council and senior practicing lawyer, Ambiga Sreenavasan. Its multi-racial twelve-member steering committee includes a wide cross section of leaders from the legal fraternity, human rights groups and Islamic organisations.

When Bersih 2.0 announced plans for a second major demonstration on 9 July it listed eight specific objectives: Clean the electoral roll, reform the postal vote, use indelible ink, develop free and fair access to media, institute a minimum 21 days campaign period, strengthen public institutions, end corruption and end dirty politics.

The objectives focus on immediate electoral reform, and the role played by the Elections Commission (EC). Although in theory the EC is an independent institution with wide powers, it has in practice acted in support of the government by, for instance, failing to maintain credible electoral rolls, allowing postal votes, which do not permit public scrutiny of voting by military and police personnel, allowing the government sole access to the mainstream media, and setting very short campaign times of around 10 days. After a recent meeting, European Union diplomats declared the EC ‘not credible’ as they kept referring to themselves as ‘we in the government’.