Author: CHUNG Yoon Ngan
Date: 05-07-12 20:44
Bersih 3.0: Political game changer?
By Ong Kian Ming
May 4, 2012 - 9:11am http://www.chinadailyapac.com
Protestors at a Bersih 3.0 rally in Kuala Lumpur on April 28. A record number of Malaysians took to the streets to support the call for a free and fair election. (Photo by AFP)
Arecord number of Malaysians took to the streets across Malaysia and around the world recently to support the call for a free and fair election by Bersih, a coalition of civil society organizations. This unprecedented show of people power signals a definitive break from the culture of fear of the authorities. But it is much harder to conclude that the mostly urban turnout at this rally would translate into an anti-incumbent swing around the country, especially in the semi-urban and more rural areas.
Malaysia’s 13th general election, likely to be called by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak in the next two months despite the Bersih rally, will still see the Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition having the upper hand. But the notion of voting out BN, in power for the last 55 years, no longer seems so implausible.
The recent rally, Bersih 3.0, was the third installment. The first, held in November 2007, saw an estimated turnout of 40,000 and was seen as one of the factors in causing a significant fall in the support for the BN during the March 2008 general election. The second, held in July 2011, had a lower turnout of about 30,000 amidst an aggressive campaign of roadblocks and intimidation on the part of the police.
The pressure exerted by the authorities leading up to Bersih 3.0, in contrast, was much less. The passing of the Peaceful Assembly Act at the end of 2011 explicitly recognized the right to hold public rallies though street processions were prohibited. Legislation had been passed in the middle of April in parliament to replace the repressive Internal Security Act with a new bill targeted at terrorist rather than political threats. The authorities even offered the rally organizers the historic Independence Stadium or Stadium Merdeka as an alternative venue to the Independence Square or Dataran Merdeka.
Although Independence Square was cordoned off with barbed wire barricades and some of the roads leading to it were closed on the eve of the rally, there were no calls to arrest people dress in yellow, the designated color of the Bersih movement, which was the case leading up to Bersih 2.0. This was all part of Najib’s Political Transformation Program, to show voters that the BN was responding to the voters’ call for greater civil liberties in the country.
The positive effects of these initiatives were sadly unraveled when an hour into the rally, the police responded to a breach in the barricades with the use disproportionate force. The streets leading up to Independence Square were already brimming with people long before the official starting time of 2 pm. The huge crowd of anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000 people filled the streets of old Kuala Lumpur in the largest public gathering in Malaysian history thus far.
Mixed in together in this sea of yellow was a significant smattering of green, worn by protesters against the building of a rare earth plant in Kuantan in the neighboring state of Pahang.
The rally had an almost festival feel about it, with yellow balloons, photograph taking and spontaneous singing of the national anthem. At around 2.30 pm, people started to leave, upon hearing reports that the organizers were asking for the protestors to disperse, after a successful turnout.
If the police had waited for another hour or so, for the official end of the rally at 4 pm, most of the crowd would have dispersed peacefully. But at 3 pm, some overzealous protestors breached the barricades at one of the main entrances to Independence Square. The police, instead of just arresting those who breached the barricades, proceeded to fire tear gas and water cannons and sent out members of the Federal Reserve Unit, an anti-riot police force, against all of the protestors. Press reports, video evidence and personal accounts showed a few individuals being beaten up by the police. The protesters were pursued for more than 1 kilometer. A few journalists were assaulted and had their cameras damaged or confiscated. More than 300 arrests were made.
The overreaction of the police was a public relations disaster for Najib. It angered the protesters, many of them first timers, almost all of whom had gathered peacefully. It angered the journalists, whose job it was to take photographs and record the event. It undermined Najib’s credentials as a reformist or progressive in the eyes of the international audience.
While the expected negative backlash may give Najib some pause, it is still more than likely that he will dissolve parliament sometime in the next two months to pave the way for the general election. If he waits too long for the effects of Bersih 3.0 to wear off, the expected positive bump in his approval ratings in 2012 as a result of budgetary handouts — RM500 ($167) to those earning below RM3,000 a month and the recently announced minimum wage of RM900 and RM800 for Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia respectively, the seemingly positive results of the government and economic transformation programs and the legislative changes to strengthen civil liberties may also wear off.
Secondly, there is little chance that by postponing the general election, he would be able to implement significant electoral reform to placate those involved in the Bersih movement.
Thirdly, he is hoping that the video evidence which shows two key opposition leaders — Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, and Azmin Ali, deputy president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, of which Anwar is the de facto leader — as having instigated the barricade breach, would redirect some of the public anger away from the police.
Fourthly, he is hoping that the video evidence, which shows the violent behavior of some of the protesters, will also shine a negative light on Bersih.
Fifthly, and most crucially, he is hoping that the negative effects of Bersih will be limited to the urban areas, most of which would have voted for the opposition regardless. Many of the first timer protesters at Bersih 3.0 were middle class non-Malays from the Klang Valley. They may have bolstered the numbers at the rally but are unlikely to be swing voters in marginal constituencies.
Furthermore, the more Bersih is seen as being supported by the non-Malay middle class, the more likely that this will be used to stoke up Malay fears that voting for the opposition will reduce Malay rights and political dominance.
What is much harder to predict is the impact of social media — Facebook and Twitter timelines were flooded with information and news on Bersih — in spreading the Bersih “message” to younger first-time voters and Malay voters in the marginal, semi-urban and rural constituencies across the country.
Younger voters, who are usually not so politically aware, may be swayed by the overwhelmingly negative buzz against the police and the BN, on social media. Some of this news may filter down to the less urbanized areas and be sufficient to counteract some of the influence of the pro-BN mainstream media. What is certain is that the unprecedented number of protestors, many of them armed with smartphones and now with their own Bersih stories, has made and will continue to make Bersih 3.0 a talking point leading up to the next general election.
While Bersih 3.0 may not have been a game changer and a herald for a “Malaysian spring”, it has most definitely increased the complexity of the electoral calculus, thus making things much more challenging for Najib as he fights for his political life in the upcoming 13th general election in Malaysia.
The author holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University and is currently a lecturer and political analyst at UCSI University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets using the handle imokman.