As July 9 looms closer, the administration of Malaysia’s Premier Najib Abdul Razak feels itself more and more pushed into a corner.
This coming Saturday threatens to be a day of reckoning for his administration, which from the beginning preferred tweaking the system to reforming the system. Now, two years after he took power from Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, another leader who failed to live up to his own reformist image, he is running out of options.
At the same time, many of his countrymen have run out of patience. Even those sitting on the fence had been hoping against hope that the Barisan Nasional would be able to somehow reverse the degradation of governance that the country has suffered since the days of Mr Mahathir Mohamed.
A non-government organisation calling itself Bersih 2.0 is arranging a huge demonstration in Kuala Lumpur on July 9 to demand electoral reform. The first time such a rally happened was on Nov 10, 2007.
That had amazing results. An estimated 40,000 people took to the streets wearing yellow to symbolise loyalty to the King, not the government.
A huge Hindu rights rally followed a few weeks later and the impetus from these protests almost floored the Barisan Nasional government in the general election that followed soon after.
Now with the many deliberate signals sent by Prime Minister Najib recently that fresh elections might be around the corner, there is reason to believe this second Bersih rally will hold great consequences for the country’s democratic development.
The government certainly believes so and has been making arrests for offences such as wearing yellow T-shirts and even the “hidden” wearing of the apparently seditious apparel.
Solidarity rallies in support of Bersih 2.0 are planned in Seoul, Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney, Osaka, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York and perhaps other places as well. In Kuala Lumpur, at least twice the number of participants as before is expected to march for fairer elections.
As before, a memorandum with eight demands will be handed to the King. No demonstration permit has officially been sought by Bersih 2.0 or Perkasa, the right-wing UMNO-supported group that will be carrying out a counter demonstration.
UMNO Youth, which under Mr Khairy Jamaluddin will also hold its own march on that day and has formally applied for a permit.
In what seems like a bad overreaction, Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has banned Bersih and arrested members of the Parti Socialis Malaysia while taking no action against UMNO Youth and Perkasa, despite threats of racial violence from the latter.
Perkasa’s eccentric leader, Mr Ibrahim Ali, has been issuing warnings to Chinese about taking part in the demonstration. This makes little sense since a large majority of the marchers are expected to be followers of Parti Islam SeMalaysia.
In truth, the government’s unwillingness in recent months to charge Mr Ibrahim with sedition or take the UMNO newspaper Utusan Melayu to task for making statements of this kind, has been a source of anger for many.
To be sure, demanding electoral reforms has shown itself to be a cogent way of mobilising Malaysians and increasing their political involvement. There are different reasons for this.
First, a democracy’s credibility and efficacy depends on the perceived fairness of the electoral system and Malaysia’s has not met that for a long time now. This point is intuitively understood by the common man and woman.
Second, electoral fairness is an issue that does not turn racial easily and has therefore functioned well as a lightning rod for general discontent.
Third, there have been many by-elections in Malaysia and these cannot help but showcase official disregard for clean and fair elections.
What Prime Minister Najib should be learning from this is that his barrage of reform terms – 1Malaysia, New Economic Model, Economic Transformation Program or Government Transformation Program – suffers a serious credibility problem. His coalition may not have lost much ground but it has not gained any either, as the recent Sarawak state election showed. Now in his third year as prime minister, his failure to be decisive on reform is perceived as conscious policy, and not the result of inexperience or bad advice.
His nemesis – Mr Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition – has survived three impressive years and more and more Malaysians now believe that elections can lead to change even when the dice are loaded in the government’s favour. Should the demanded reforms be carried out, the ruling Barisan Nasional would lose more ground in the next elections.
To conclude, the fourth and most important reason for civil society to call for electoral reforms is that the demands are clearly sensible.
The fact that things are now coming to a head and the police are making arrests with no credible legal grounds, shows the inefficacy of parliamentary debate in Malaysia today and the government’s inability to reverse the wave of dissension that has been growing since before the first Bersih demonstration in 2007.
By Ooi Kee Beng – is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest books include The Right to Differ: A Biographical Sketch of Lim Kit Siang and In Lieu of Ideology: An Intellectual Biography of Goh Keng Swee.