Reform storm gathers in Malaysia

By Simon Roughneen (Asia Times Online)

KUALA LUMPUR – Almost 10 months after security forces forcibly broke up an electoral reform protest in the national capital, a chaotic repeat looms. The Malaysian government and city authorities will attempt to close off the city center square where activists hope 100,000 people will gather this weekend to seek sweeping changes to the electoral system.

The rally organizers, known as Bersih (Malay for “clean”) 3.0, are a coalition of non-governmental organizations and rights groups who say they want Malaysia’s electoral laws amended. Opposition members of parliament allege that tens of thousands of irregularities persist on the electoral register, while Bersih has dismissed the election commission as toothless and called for the election commission to resign. The rally is being held ahead of anticipated snap polls later this year.

During a Bersih rally last July 9, more than 1,600 people were arrested and scores injured, including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Police fired tear gas and water cannon at tens of thousands of peaceful protestors at various locations in Kuala Lumpur. The crackdown hit Prime Minister Najib Razak’s reform credentials and signaled his United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) party’s resistance to meaningful electoral reform before the next polls, which must be held by April 2013.

The stage is set for new clashes. Kuala Lumpur Mayor Ahmad Fuad Ismail announced on Thursday that Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, will be closed from 6 am Friday to 6 am Sunday after Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said protesters had refused offers that four stadia elsewhere in the city could be used for the rally.

Cynthia Gabriel, director of SUARAM, a human-rights organization and part of the Bersih 3.0 steering committee, told Asia Times Online that the protesters should be allowed to convene at the square. “This is a last-minute effort to make it as difficult as possible for us logistically to hold the rally,” she said. “We have promised that the protest will be peaceful, and in any functioning democracy the right of citizens to stage a peaceful rally is enshrined in law.”

The government’s move is being seen as a test of Bersih’s resolve. “Merdeka Square is a matter of principle – backing down at the last minute will obviously cause confusion and also a loss of momentum,” said Greg Lopez of Australian National University.
The rally comes almost a month after the Malaysian government proposed 22 electoral reforms that Bersih considers insufficient. Political analysts believe Saturday’s rally could take place less than six weeks before parliamentary elections that might be held on June 5.

Gabriel said “only the issue of indelible ink has been addressed” (which would prevent voters from casting a ballot multiple times) in the proposed electoral changes. She and other Bersih leaders advocate that an election not be held until the latest possible date, allowing the government sufficient time to pass and implement more substantive reforms into law.

Beginning in September 2011, Najib’s government announced a series of reforms, including of the repressive print media codes and notorious Internal Security Act (ISA) that allowed for indefinite detention without trial.

The changes “underline my commitment to making Malaysia a modern, progressive democracy that can be proud to take its place at the top table of international leadership”, said Najib, speaking on the eve of celebrations marking the founding of the modern Malaysian state in 1963.

However, opposition member of parliament Dzulkefly Ahmad of the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) dismisses Najib’s reform drive. “What the big print gives the small print takes away,” he told Asia Times Online, suggesting that the reform announcements were more about electioneering than substantive change.

Electoral maneuvers
Analysts believe that a big turnout on Saturday could influence whether the government calls the elections soon. If the lockdown succeeds in keeping supporters away from the rally, a low turnout could give the impression of a waning desire for political change and thereby spur the government into holding an early snap poll. Under present laws, the government needs to give only a week’s notice before holding an election, giving the opposition little time to prepare a nationwide campaign.

The UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) ruling coalition has governed Malaysia since independence. The present opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim, a former UMNO insider, achieved its best-ever result in 2008, denting the government’s two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious state.

Around 60% of Malaysians are either ethnic Malay or other “indigenous” groups and are mostly listed as Muslim. Another 25% are ethnic Chinese and 7% mostly Tamil-speaking Indian-Malaysians. Party and voting allegiances have not traditionally been cast on strict ethnic lines, however, with UMNO and PAS competing for the “Islamic” vote and with separate Chinese-dominated parties in both the BN and opposition coalitions.

Earlier in the week, the Kuala Lumpur mayor slammed Bersih as an opposition front, something the protesters have consistently denied. “It is a natural consequence that opposition parties back any civil society drive for free and fair elections,” reasoned Bersih organizer Gabriel “as the perceived cheating in any poll would be disadvantageous to them”.

On Friday, government-linked media played up opposition senator Tunku Abdul Aziz’s description of Bersih as “irresponsible” for refusing to back down on the rally venue. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) representative’s comments highlighted that despite government claims Bersih and the parliamentary opposition are not locked in a seamless alliance.

Indeed, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) coalition itself is an unwieldy amalgam of Anwar’s centrist Keadilan party, the secular Malaysian-Chinese DAP and the sharia law-favoring PAS, whose divergent interests are perhaps only held together by the prospect of displacing BN from power.

Asked if the opposition could win in a free and fair vote, member of parliament Ahmad said, “I don’t know,” conceding that “Najib is making himself look so earnest with all these reforms.”

Looking ahead to eventual elections, Yang Razali Kassin of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said BN would go all out to win back its previously held two-thirds majority and the four out of 13 federal states lost to the opposition in 2008.

“In that sense, the opposition will be on the defensive,” he said. The prime minister’s popularity has jumped after recent increases to civil service salaries, one-off cash transfers to low-income families and recent reform announcements.

After the negative response to last July’s crackdown on the Bersih 2.0 rally, analysts believe it would be counter-productive and counter-intuitive for the government to back a similar crackdown on Saturday.

However, Home Affairs Minister Hussein was by early Friday speaking of the proposed rally as a security issue, hinting that a repeat of last July’s crackdown was possible if Bersih tried to access Independence Square.

For now, political analysts feel that the governing parties are well placed to win any upcoming election. “The real issue is how big will BN win,” said Lopez, adding that the opposition had failed to make inroads into the government’s voter-heavy stronghold of east Malaysia, where the election could be won or lost.