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Malaysian politics take to the streets

Asia Times - June 24, 2011

Anil Netto, Penang With new polls expected within a year, Malaysia's hotly contested politics are set to hit the streets, setting the stage for a potential confrontation between pro- and anti-government interest groups.

On July 9, more than 60 civil society groups calling themselves the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih for "clean" in Malay, are calling for a "Walk for Democracy" in downtown Kuala Lumpur to push for sweeping electoral reforms.

If implemented, such reforms would likely boost the Anwar Ibrahim-led opposition at the next polls. Right-wing Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa (Indigenous Empowerment Organization), a Malay rights interest group led by firebrand Ibrahim Ali, however, is spearheading a counter-rally backed by 57 groups.

Another counter-Bersih rally is being organized by the youth wing of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in the ruling coalition, to support the Election Commission's own election reform program. The Commission's proposals have not satisfied Bersih, which wants a clean up of the electoral rolls, automatic registration of voters and other balloting issues that critics claim have historically favored ruling coalition candidates.

In particular, Bersih is seeking a longer official campaign period of at least 21 days. The coalition noted that the first national elections in 1955 held under the British colonial government had a campaign period of 42 days, but by the last general election in 2008 the period had been whittled down to just eight days. In the past, such a short campaign period has severely handicapped opposition parties that are unable to effectively reach voters in rural areas.

In contrast, the ruling coalition enjoys almost wall-to-wall coverage of its campaign over state-controlled national television and radio. Bersih is thus also calling for free and fair media access to all parties. Other demands call for the strengthening of public institutions such as the Election Commission, the judiciary and the police, and an end to gutter politics.

The July 9 Bersih gathering has been dubbed "Bersih 2.0" as it will be the coalition's second major gathering. The first Bersih demonstration was held in Kuala Lumpur in November 2007, a year after the coalition was established. Some 60,000 people, mostly wearing yellow T-shirts, flocked to the peaceful gathering in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

The government did not take the gathering lightly. Crowds in some locations braved tear-gas and water cannons fired by riot police. Dozens of demonstrators were arrested. Although news reports put the turnout at 40,000, thousands more were blocked from entering the capital by police checkpoints, traffic jams and the closure of light rail stations near the gathering points.

The rally was followed a couple of weeks later by another pivotal rally organized by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), supported by disempowered Indian Malaysians who felt they had been marginalized from the mainstream of development. It also was harshly dispersed by police authorities.

Political observers have pointed to both these rallies and the government's heavy-handed crackdown as major factors in the March 2008 general election that saw the opposition make historic gains, winning five of 13 federal states. (The opposition later lost control of one of those states through political defections.)

Rally organizers are at pains to stress that Bersih 2.0 is a civil society-led initiative; none of the 14-member Bersih steering committee is from any political party. Among those in the committee are two former presidents of the Malaysian Bar Council, including the Bersih steering committee chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan, and representatives from prominent rights groups.

Opposition parties, however, have thrown their support behind Bersih. Despite making sharp inroads at the 2008 general elections, opposition politicians have expressed dissatisfaction with the current electoral process, seeing its shortcomings as a major stumbling block towards it capturing federal power.

PAS, the main opposition Islamic Party, has already vowed to bring 100,000 supporters to Bersih 2.0. But given the expected lockdown of the capital and other tough measures likely to be taken by the authorities, that figure may be overly optimistic, one PAS state-level leader privately told Asia Times Online.

The party is fresh from a makeover after internal elections that saw moderates, including the charismatic Mohamad Sabu, take over key party leadership posts.

Perkasa, on the other hand, has demanded that Bersih call off its rally. Its leader, Ibrahim Ali, has drawn parallels between Bersih's planned rally and the uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa and warned that Bersih's agenda was to create chaos.

True to form, he added a racial twist by controversially saying that minority Chinese Malaysians expected to participate in the rally needed to stay at home and stock up on food supplies. He later backtracked from the statement, saying he was misquoted. Critics say Perkasa's racially charged statements have made a mockery of prime minister Najib Razak's '1Malaysia' sloganeering, which appeals to racial harmony. While UMNO has officially distanced itself from Perkasa, there are widespread perceptions that the two groups are linked.

This perception was boosted when former premier and ex-UMNO president Mahathir Mohamad opened Perkasa's first general meeting at a convention hall in Kuala Lumpur last March, an event attended by some 4,000 supporters. It has been further reinforced by the kid gloves treatment Ibrahim Ali has received from the authorities, allowing him leeway for his racial rhetoric.

"UMNO is outsourcing this kind of racist posturing to Perkasa which is totally outside the party to hoodwink the people into believing that UMNO is a changed, moderate party," opposition parliamentarian Jeyakumar Devaraj was reported as saying,

Analysts are skeptical that Perkasa and UMNO Youth can match Bersih's expected turnout. It is no doubt not lost on UMNO that these gatherings come against the backdrop of fast-rising food and housing prices that have contributed to a grassroots sense that real wages have not kept pace with the cost of living. That has prompted Najib to say that he hoped a new minimum wage policy would be introduced by year-end.

Meanwhile, the World Bank has highlighted concerns about a serious and rising brain drain that threatens to undermine the country's long term economic potential. Among the million-strong Malaysian diaspora, one third are college graduates. At home in Malaysia, paradoxically, the number of unemployed graduates in Malaysia has more than doubled since 2008.

The political stakes for the planned rallies and their potential impact on the next elections are thus high. A general election must be called by 2013. Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, a former UMNO Youth leader, says no permits have been issued for the gatherings planned by Bersih 2.0, UMNO Youth or Perkasa. Police have warned they will make preventive arrests before and during the rally.

Some observers are privately concerned that these warnings, coupled with Perkasa's fiery rhetoric, could provide the cue for a more serious crackdown against opposition politicians and dissidents ahead of the general election similar to the sweeping crackdown against dissent seen in 1987 during the Mahathir administration.

But much has changed in Malaysia since then. Many ordinary people, fed up with corruption, abuse of power and questionable electoral practices are expressing their dissatisfaction on Twitter and Facebook and in the comments section of independent news sites. And their voices of dissent are unlikely to be silenced by another round of tear gas, water cannons and arbitrary arrests.

[Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.]

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