Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The political impact of Bersih 2.0

July 20, 2011

The BN is still haemorrhaging from the Sarawak state election of April 16, where it lost the urban vote. Bersih 2.0 shows a continuing slide.

By Johan Saravanamuttu

The repercussions of Bersih 2.0 will no doubt be profound. It has already been dubbed as Malaysia’s “Hibiscus Revolution”. The question that is now uppermost in the public imagination is whether the current government will also suffer a severe blow for its inept handling of the event.

Bersih started out in 2006 as a movement of civil society forces and political parties calling for clean and fair elections. Its demands for cleaning up the electoral rolls, reviewing postal votes, including allowing for voting from abroad, fair access to the media, the elimination of corrupt practices are nothing radical or revolutionary and yet the government’s resistance to it has allowed the opposition parties and those not in support of the present government to easily latch on to a ready-made platform for galvanising support.

Bersih’s first political rally on Nov 10, 2007 saw some 40,000 Malaysian streaming into the heart of Kuala Lumpur, setting a benchmark for peaceful political protest in Malaysia.

On July 9, 2011 almost the same number of demonstrators were out in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, as estimated by the independent “politweet”, despite a ban on the rally and police roadblocks at every point of entry into KL. If the political impact of Bersih 1.0 on the general election of March 2008 is now axiomatic, would Bersih 2.0 have a similar impact on the next general election?

It is important to first understand the character of the rally itself. The outpouring of material on the social media and through social networking websites reached proportions which, in my view, have been unprecedented and have not stopped. At the point of writing, over 200,000 facebookers have called on premier Najib Tun Razak to resign. The webpage has picked up 20,000 votes or more in one day.

The people who showed up at Bersih 2.0 came from a cross-section of Malaysia’s multicultural society, with Malays and youth as the dominant groups. This spoke well for the continuation of the trajectory of Malaysia’s non-racialised “new politics”. The involvement of national literary laureate A Samad Said who wrote a touching poem about Malaysia’s “wounded democracy” was highly inspiring to the would-be Bersih rallyers.

Various attempts made to delegitimise Bersih by Umno-related groups had a counter-productive effect. Thus it was alleged that it would be “unIslamic” for Muslims to participate in an illegal rally. The bogey of May 13 was also invoked and the Chinese were asked to stock up on food and stay at home. Such racialisation of the event by Perkasa and the Malay paper Utusan Malaysia helped to further augment multiracial supporters on the other side. The lame counter march of a couple of hundreds of Umno Youth “patriots” proved to be the proverbial drop in the bucket in terms of its impact.

The event received a crucial boost when Suhakam chairman Hasmy Agam weighed in to opine that it was legitimate. Najib had called for the rally to be held at a stadium and the organisers obliged after meeting with the King but the police were adamant about not giving a permit for use of the Merdeka Stadium.

The heavy-handed action on the part of the police – some 1,700 arrests, heavy use of tear gas, water cannons, and some argue, responsibility for one death – has put the government in a no-win situation vis-à-vis the common Malaysian citizen.

BN in damage control mode

In public imagination, Bersih 2.0 would stand out even more than Bersih 1. Already folklore about Bersih has gone “viral” on the Internet. A few examples should suffice. “The Lady of Liberty”, an elderly woman well into her 60s, who braved the water cannons, holding a branch with two daisies has been reproduced ad infinitum in multiple incarnations and web designs.

Numerous individuals present at the rally have written first-hand accounts to show why as ordinary citizens their participation was a morally and socially uplifting experience. Not least of all, Marina Mahathir, the daughter of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the patron of Perkasa, wrote in her blog that she had gone to participate in the Bersih rally in support of her daughter and all the young people who were drawn to the cause.

Admittedly, Bersih 2.0 is largely an urban phenomenon. But this is not to be taken lightly, if urbanites are fast becoming the voting majority. The prime minister and his ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, are now in damage control mode.

The BN is still haemorrhaging from the Sarawak state election of April 16, where it lost the urban vote. Bersih 2.0 shows a continuing slide. Umno’s vote banks in the rural areas alone cannot assure it of regaining a two-thirds control of Parliament – which Najib must get to prove he is better than his predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

The premier is now surely conflicted about waiting out till the mandatory date for the next election in early 2013 or holding it much earlier in 2012. Another difficult budget awaits in October this year and with the Malaysian economy invariably on the verge of a dip, prospects are somewhat dim for the ruling coalition.

Larger than the issue of the next general election, which would now likely to be in early 2012, is the changing nature of Malaysian politics. Political parties like his, which continue to mobilise support purely on the basis of race, after Bersih 2.0, are on a short political tether.

The writer is senior visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The article first appeared on Aliran.

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