Stage Set for Malaysian Electoral Confrontation

Rejection of a request by the electoral reform group Bersih to hold an April 28 sit-in at Dataran Merdeka (Indepedence Square) is a gamble that could turn into a public relations disaster for the Malaysian government, observers in Kuala Lumpur say.

Representatives of the Kuala Lumpur City Council Friday notified Bersih, a coalition of some 150-odd organizations demanding what they term as free and fair elections, that the permit wouldn’t be granted.

The Bersih 3.0 protest hadn’t been gaining the traction that its predecessor did in July of 2011, when what the organization says were 50,000 marchers were set upon by police with water cannons and tear gas. The resultant outcry in the international press and by human rights organizations shaved 20 percentage points off Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s popularity in public opinion polls.

Najib was forced to go onto the offensive, offering a series of amendments or replacements for unpopular laws including the Internal Security Act, the Publications and Printing Presses Act and several others. His popularity has since rebounded from a low of 59 percent in the wake of the crackdown. It is difficult to imagine that with an election believed to be a month or two away he would dare that kind of opprobrium again.

The Barisan Nasional is currently pulling out all the stops to get the polls underway, with preparations “in full swing,” one United Malays National Organization party operative recently told Asia Sentinel. Najib’s personal popularity, currently at 69 percent, is built on improving public confidence in the general economy and considerable pump-priming with a budget built to please the rakyat, or public. The government can probably expect to stay in power, political observers say, although there is little chance of regaining the historic two-thirds majority in parliament that the coalition had held since independence until 2008.

But while Najib may be personally popular, the Barisan is not. The Malaysian Chinese Association, the second biggest party in the government, is beset with a massive scandal over construction of the Port Klang Free Zone, which is mired in billions of ringgit of debt. The Merdeka Center poll that gave Najib a comfortable lead found that fully a third of those who thought he was doing a good job would vote for the Pakatan Rakyat, the three-party opposition coalition made up of the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party, the Islamic fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s own Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People’s Justice Party, largely made up of urban ethnic Malays.

The thinking of those gambling on shutting down the rally apparently is that Dataran Merdeka is not listed among the places permitted under the Peaceful Assembly Act which was only recently passed by the Dewan Rakyat. Jaringan Melayu, a Malay NGO, was recently banned from protesting there. The theory is that enough people will see Bersih as lawbreakers that they will be turned off by their tactics.

“Why does Bersih think they can break the law and hold the government to ransom?” asked an UMNO source. “Are they above everyone else? Law abiding citizens have to give way?”

In the practice of street politics, however, that hardly matters.

“This Bersih sit-in was not getting the kind of attention that last year’s did, and in fact last year’s only got going after the authorities came down hard on the organizers and started blocking roads, having road blocks on the highways from the north and south leading to KL, etc.,” a Kuala Lumpur businessman told Asia Sentinel. “That created the mood with grouches, those unhappy with the hardline approach, those who for any reason were unhappy with the Barisan Nasional, to try to sneak past the road blocks. The crackdown is what made that rally iconic.”

In effect, Bersih, also known as the coalition for free and fair elections, is thus looking for the same kind of reaction from the government. Earlier, it appeared they weren’t going to get it. Hishamuddin Hussein, the minister for home affairs, said earlier that the rally hadn’t apparently caught fire like the previous one, that it was not a security threat and “has little traction with the people"

“But by not giving them the permit, and knowing that these guys will go ahead and do the sit-in anyway, the city has again ignited the fuse which will make even ordinary people turn up for the protest,” the businessman said.

Apparently anger has already been rising because thugs apparently linked to UMNO roughed up student demonstrators at the same location Thursday.

“I don’t understand it actually – it looks like the authorities want to turn public opinion against themselves,” the businessman said. Public opinion could also be affected by a demand by Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia, or Perkasa, a Malay supremacy NGO closely linked to UMNO, to be given a police permit to rally at 9:30 am on the same day at Dataran Merdeka, allegedly to defend the country’s monarchy.

Ibrahim Ali, Perkasa’s firebrand leader, has repeatedly threatened violence against opposition figures over so-called ketuanan Melayu, translated roughly as Malays first, or ethnic Malay primacy in government and society.

Bersih’s steering committee was notified of the decision to ban the sit-in Friday morning. Steering committee member Maria Chin Abdullah told local reporters the city said the event is not suitable to be held at the Independence Square, which is to be used only for events of “national level" such as celebrations.

"We regret to inform that your application cannot be approved as the activity intended is unsuitable to be used in Dataran Merdeka as stipulated by the (the city), the letter said. “Only national level events are allowed at the Dataran like the National Day celebration and Federal Territories Day."

Responding to the rejection, Ambiga Sreenavasan, former head of the Malaysian Bar Council and one of Bersih’s leaders, told local reporters she was “not surprised” and that the sit-in will proceed as scheduled.

She added that the coalition will not appeal the decision, and that it will continue with preparations including dealing with police who have asked the NGO to come in to fill in some forms.

“If there are any obstructions (by city officials) on the day, we will negotiate with them,” she said.

Bersih is organizing the event after charging that the government and the Election Commission refused to implement the coalition's eight demands to clean up what they regard as practices designed to thwart the opposition’s chances for a fair election.

Himpunan Hijau, a protest group seeking to stop the operation of an Australia-owned rare-earths processing plant in based in Kuantan on the east coast, is expected to join the Bersih rally. The opposition has made stopping the plant a major campaign issue. Himpunan Hijau held a rally attended by thousands in Kuantan earlier this year.