Electoral Dismay Prompts Malaysian March

In defiance of an official ban, thousands of Malaysians are expected to march in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow over a wide variety of grievances, including judicial corruption and electoral fraud. They hope to present a petition for redress not to the government but to Malaysia’s usually silent royalty.

The rally, which observers say could draw anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 protesters, could be the biggest of its kind since the tumultuous 1998 protests that followed the downfall of then-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was subsequently arrested and jailed after he dared to challenge former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Because no permit has been issued for the protest, observers expect arrests and they do not rule out the possibility of violence. Still on the books is a one-time colonial law that bars gatherings of more than five people without a police permit.

Human Rights Watch,the US-based human rights advocacy organization, issued a press release Friday evening condemning the Malaysian police for refusing to grant the permit, saying that "If Malaysia wants to count itself a democracy, it can begin by upholding constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly."

It is difficult to say what the protest means in terms of Malaysia’s political and economic stability, but it does illustrate growing opposition to the job performance of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who took over from former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 2003 and has had a tough time of it ever since. National elections are expected perhaps as early as March 2008.

The protest is being organized by Bersih, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, an umbrella group encompassing 64 civil society groups and five political parties. According to a source in Kuala Lumpur, the group is struggling to keep the rally non-partisan, although Anwar Ibrahim, now an opposition figure, is expected to lead the crowd along with a contingent from Keadilan Parti Rakyat, the political party Anwar heads through his wife. His six years in prison on what are widely viewed as trumped-up charges make him ineligible to participate in politics. Lim Kit Siang, the long-time leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party and the Islamic Fundamentalist Parti sa-Islam Malaysia (PAS) will also participate.

Despite the ban on the protest, activists were handing out flyers at churches and other institutions Friday, calling for citizen action and saying that Bersih had chosen yellow as the color of the day because it is “the color for citizen action worldwide and the color for the press freedom movement.” It also happens to be the color for Malaysia’s royalty.

The rally has been prompted by a wide variety of recent concerns – rigged elections, judicial corruption, widespread corruption in the dominant ethnically-based political parties, and the perceived weakness of Badawi among them.

"This March may be spearheaded by NGOs and opposition parties but I can safely say that a great many UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) members, especially those who are educated or professional Malays, have sympathy for the issues they are trying to push forward,” one ranking UMNO figure told Asia Sentinel. “Middle-class Malays today are a confident lot and are demanding that the leaders of the nation be held accountable. It’s ironic I guess, the very success of (Malaysia’s affirmative action program) has created a class of successful Malays who demand much more of their government."

The police said they would deploy as many as 4,000 officers to keep the demonstrators from marching on Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), the former cricket pitch in front of the colonial-era Selangor Club. They have warned that the rally is unlawful and that they would arrest anyone who turns up. Although it was originally expected that as many as 100,000 people would participate, the stiff response from the police will probably cut that number dramatically.

Malaysia’s nine sultans are – at least for now – the unlikely champions of the protest. The marchers are expected to try and march from Independence Square to the Istana Negara, the king’s palace about five kilometers away, unless they are forcibly stopped.

Mizan Zainal Abidin, the Sultan of Terengganu, who currently holds the rotating kingship and is Malaysia’s constitutional head of state, reportedly had said he would accept whatever petition the marchers want to deliver. Over recent months, the Sultan of Perak, Azlan Shah, who held the kingship for five years and also at one point headed the Supreme Court, has spearheaded the royalty’s growing opposition to the government, particularly over judicial corruption.

Bersih says it is demanding four electoral changes – the use of indelible ink to prevent repeated voting, preventing ghost voting, the abolition of postal voting, which the organization charges is frequently abused by the ruling coalition, and equal access for all political parties to the mainstream media, all of which are state-controlled through ownership by the leading political parties.

In particular, they point to a by-election in the town of Ijok in April, which the ruling Barisan National coalition won in the face of what looked like a solid challenge by Parti Keadilan. A Malaysian blogger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, charged that of the 12,000 voters in the district, some 1,700 were phantom voters, with people as old as 107 still on the rolls. Others listed as voters were as young as 8-years old. The ruling coalition outspent the opposition massively and, others charged, also bussed in voters.

The rally is to some extent an outgrowth of a previous one on Sept. 26 when an estimated 2,000 lawyers marched on Putrajaya, the country’s administrative capital, to demand that the judiciary be cleaned up in the wake of allegations that a well-connected lawyer connived in 2002 with Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, who was then the chief judge of the Federal Court, to select pliant members of the bar as judges.

The royalty became involved through the Conference of Rulers, whose most important power is the ratification of judicial appointments. For months, the conference has been withholding ratification of Badawi’s pick for a new federal court chief judge. Then, on Nov. 1, they refused to allow Fairuz to stay on past his retirement date as the chief justice.

The picture of a tainted judiciary darkened with the appointment in September of Zaki Azmi, until recently UMNO’s chief legal advisor, to the Federal Court without having ever served as a judge. Since the country won independence in 1963, the government has carefully avoided appointing prominent members of political parties to the bench.

In addition, several high-profile trials have been criticized for being less than satisfactory, including the ongoing case over the murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu, whose politically well-connected former lover is accused of the crime.