Bersih 2.0, Malaysia 0.0
Although Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak appears to have won the battle by closing down Kuala Lumpur on Saturday and arresting 1,667 mostly peaceful marchers and would-be marchers, the consensus seems to be that Malaysia has suffered a blow to its international reputation as a moderate, democratic country.
Bersih 2.0, as the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections is known, appears to have won on points. a wan-lookng Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, the head of the three-party Pakatan Rakyat, was photographed in his hospital bed where he was kept for observation, a neat coup de theatre whether intended or not.
While it didn't draw anywhere close to the 100,000 people Bersih's leaders forecast, they can claim that the police intimidation kept marchers away. Crowd estimates ranged from 10,000 by the government to 50,000 by Bersih. Pictures of marchers being chased by baton-wielding police and hosed down by water cannon have made most of the world's major newspapers and the story was given prominent on-line coverage by Al Jazeera. Despite the fact that Bersih is an umbrella group of 62 non-government organizations, with a great many Chinese and Indian faces rather than Muslim ones, the march has been tied internationally to the Jasmine Revolutions of the Middle East, with at least one blog -- Time Magazine's Hannah Beech -- even alluding to opposition leaders hoping for the smell of jasmine.
The crackdown, which included razor wire strung at strategic entry points to the city, legions of police, tear gas, water cannon and truncheons, is especially embarrassing given Malaysia's membership on the United Nations Human Rights Council. To prove it is supported by the electorate, however, the government has promised a massive counter-rally that will draw hundreds of thousands of supporters, which probably will not be accompanied by water cannons, truncheons, tear gas, razor wire and legions of police intended to keep marchers away.
The Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition, characterized the Bersih 2.0 march as a tool of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, and indeed top Pakatan leaders did show up and were duly arrested. It also alleged that the US was behind a plot to destabilize the country through the National Endowment for Democracy, which gives money to Bersih. The NED is a private, non-profit foundation funded by the US Congress whose ostensible aim is to support democratic goals.
Often the government's tactics seemed a puzzling throwback to previous arguments. In the run-up to the march itself, police arrested 30 members of the Malaysian Socialist Party on June 26 and charged them with seeking to overthrow the country's monarchy and make a hero of Chin Peng, the elderly one-time leader of the Communist insurgency against British Malaya who remains in exile. Last week, police held a press conference to announce they had found caches of machetes and Molotov cocktails secreted around Kuala Lumpur along with yellow Bersih tee-shirts, leaving the question open why Bersih members would leave the shirts with the weapons to identify them as violent when they professed to be peaceful marchers. The caches of weapons were mostly dismissed as a dirty trick.
"I think it has tarnished Malaysia's image and its membership in the UN Human Rights Council," political analyst Khoo Kay Peng told Agence-France Press. Describing the police action as "completely overdone," Khoo said, "It is a killer to our image as a progressive democratic country."
Beyond the question of who won or lost, the massive police crackdown raises the question why the ruling coalition reacted so strongly. The answer goes back to 2007, when the first Bersih rally drew 40,000 protesters, one of the biggest in modern Malaysian history, and engendered the same kind of crackdown by the government of then-Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
That rally was widely regarded as the spur that ultimately drove the Anwar-led coalition to victory in five Malaysian states and broke the Barisan?s 50-year-old two-thirds parliamentary majority. Although opinion polls show Najib himself as popular with the electorate, the three political parties that make up the bulk of the ruling coalition -- the United Malays National Organization, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress -- all are regarded as corrupt by segments of the electorate. The Chinese in particular have abandoned the Barisan.
With an election expected to be called sometime before the middle of 2012, Najib and the Barisan believe Pakatan Rakyat would be able to gain traction out of the protest, as it did in 2008.
Bersih argues that the Barisan is kept in power by electoral laws that create an unfair advantage. In particular, according to Bersih Steering Committee member Wong Chin Huat, 2.5 million young people are being kept off the electoral rolls at the same time many more ghost voters are being kept on the rolls.
The eight-point demands that Bersih had hoped to present to the king include cleaning the electoral rolls, reforming the postal ballots and marking voters with indelible ink to discourage repeat voters.
The organization also called for a minimum 21-day campaign period, complaining that the government can put its electoral machinery in place before the opposition has the chance to gear up. In one election, Wong told Asia Sentinel, only eight days elapsed between the dissolution of parliament and the polls.
With all of the conventional media -- newspapers, radio and television -- in the hands of the major political parties, Bersih is also asking for "free and fair access to the media," Although the opposition parties have their own press, it is subject to licensing by the government and can only be distributed to party members.
The press has become a potent issue, with seemingly hundreds of bloggers on the scene whose barbs are believed to have played a major role in the 2008 national elections. The government has periodically threatened to pass legislation to license Internet journalism, but has backed away. Wong, however, said that Internet journalists are unable to reach the rural Malay villages that form the bulk of UMNO's support.
One UMNO stalwart, however, denied that election reform is necessary, saying the fact that the opposition won five states in the 2008 elections is an indication that elections are already free and fair.
In any case, it's pretty sure that electoral reform is not going to happen. The Barisan maintains a strong hold on parliament and the chances of reform legislation passing are nil. Najib, in a triumphal press conference on Sunday, however, said the government is introducing its own election reforms including putting a biometric system in place.