Trying to smash a walnut with a sledgehammer? Malaysia, Najib and the Bersih movement

Posted on | juli 21, 2011 | No Comments

On Saturday July 9th the Malaysian government deployed thousands of police and ordered a lock-down of the capital Kuala Lumpur in an attempt to try to prevent a coalition of NGOs from holding a demonstration calling for free and fair elections. Initially the leaders of the Bersih movement had accepted an earlier offer by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to hold the rally at Merdeka stadium. However with the issuing of the orders to lock-down Kuala Lumpur the coalition were effectively denied that choice. In protest some 20,000 Malaysians defied the order and went ahead with their protest against the electoral system in Malaysia.

Bersih (which means Clean) in Malay was formed in 2007 a few months prior to the 2008 elections. The movement, which comprises a broad umbrella of civil society groups and opposition political parties, has repeatedly called for major reforms to the electoral system in order to make it free and fair. Among their demands Bersih calls for a truly independent Electoral Commission, the reform of the electoral roll and postal voting, the use of indelible ink, equal access to the media for all political parties, and a minimum campaign period of three weeks (Malaysian election campaigns are notoriously short and determined by the government. The 2004 campaign was the shortest to date lasting just 7 and 1/2 days).

The Malaysian government’s response to Saturday’s protest drew widespread international criticism. Police baton charges and tear gas were used to disperse the crowd leading to scores injured, the death of one activist and nearly 1,700 arrests. Even voices within the Prime Minister’s own party UMNO (the United Malays National Organization) have criticized Prime Minister Najib’s handling of the affair. Of these the highest ranking is outspoken Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, who has argued that the Prime Minister is likely to suffer a political backlash from the rally. Indeed most commentators now think that an early election is less likely. While another election does not have to take place until 2013 many suspected that Prime Minister Najib (who was deputy Prime Minister at the last elections in 2008) might seek to capitalize on the success of the ruling Barisan Nasional in elections earlier this year in the state of Sarawak.

Given the range of legislative mechanisms at the UMNO’s disposal, its huge coffers and patronage network, and its essential control of the mainstream media it always seems incredulous that UMNO leaders are so fearful of an opposition that lacks institutional capacity and financial strength. UMNO after all has over 3 million members across the country, a figure that easily dwarfs the membership of any other political or civil society organization. Historically UMNO was able to craft a 14 party coalition largely by co-opting opposition parties. After all Gerakan was once an important ‘foe’ on the island of Penang and even the Islamic part PAS was briefly part of the coalition in the 1970s. And yet increasingly the government’s response to any opposition has been marked by overkill.

Besides the Bersih rally, another vivid example of this has been in the reaction to the satirical cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Haque (better known as Zunar). Zunar has long parodied the government, and more recently the Prime Minister and his wife, in his cartoons which have appeared in newspapers, magazines, books, and more recently on the website of the independent news service Malaysiakini. Last year in June a book of his cartoons was banned and in September he was arrested for sedition accused with producing material that was both “detrimental to public order” and which could “influence people to revolt against government policies”. While Prime Minister Najib clearly is ‘not amused’ his increasing use of repression and overt and heavy-handed manipulation of the mechanisms of electoral authoritarianism risks stripping away the veneer of democracy that Malaysia has maintained successfully since the 1980s. In so doing he risks undermining the legitimacy that this has accorded among Malaysia’s ‘silent majority’ and making the regime more fragile than it was. By trying to crack a proverbial walnut with a sledgehammer Najib may actually create an even greater challenge both to his rule, and to the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled Malaysia for over 50 years. A pressure cooker that doesn’t let off steam will inevitably explode.

On a separate, but related note, Zunar was in the United States this week to collect an award from The Cartoonists Rights Network for Courage in Editorial Cartooning.

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
E-MAIL: [at]


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