Malaysian opposition rallies for change (IPS)

Nov 8, 2007
By Baradan Kuppusamy (IPS)
KUALA LUMPUR – A mammoth opposition rally planned for next week threatens to expose examples of vote-buying, gerrymandering, fraudulent electoral rolls and blatant use of public resources to win votes in Malaysian elections, unless the government is able to stop it.

Organized by BERSIH, a coalition of four main opposition political parties and 67 civil rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the rally is the first concerted effort to change the election rules ahead of the country’s 12th general election, widely expected to be held by March.
The government is dead set on stopping the rally, which could be the biggest since Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi came to power in 2003. The premier rode a wave of popular adulation that has since soured by his failure to fight corruption and promote the rule of law.
The police have issued a warning, citing a pre-colonial era law that bars gatherings of more than five people that the rally is banned and anybody who turns up at independence square in the capital risks being arrested.
“Despite the concerted threats we expect over 10,000 people to turn up,” said Sivarasah Rasiah, a key organizer and vice president of the opposition National Peoples Party. “The threats are not going to force us to back down,” he said. “It is our democratic right to gather peacefully to show our unhappiness with the tainted system.”
The challenge to the electoral system is all the more significant as the rally and march are led by the country’s three top opposition leaders. At the head of the protest is opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, who will lead the gathering from independence square to the king’s palace about five kilometers away to submit a memorandum demanding electoral reforms.
Other leaders expected to join the protest are Ibrahim are Lim Kit Siang, leader of the pro-Chinese Democratic Action Party, and Abdullah Hadi Awang, president of the fundamentalist Pan Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS. “We are united in our resolve to bring changes to the election rules,” said Anwar Ibrahim at a recent rally outside the city. “The people have suffered long enough. Let’s have a fair and free election so that voters can choose the government of their choice.”
BERSIH says, besides the outdated election laws, a cleanup of the electoral list is urgently needed to remove so-called phantom voters and that the Election Commission must be made truly independent. BERSIH is demanding four immediate changes: permanent use of indelible ink to prevent repeated voting, a clean up of electoral rolls to eliminate phantom voters, abolition of postal voting frequently abused by the government and equal access for all political parties to make use of state-controlled media.
“Only when elections are clean and fair can citizens be real masters of their own destiny and expect holders of public office to act accountably and effectively,” said Faizal Mustaffa, co-coordinator of BERSIH. To add pressure on the government, BERSIH supporters and representatives will organize similar protests outside Malaysian embassies in many countries, including South Korea, Indonesia, United Kingdom, United States and Thailand.
“We hope the government will be sufficiently persuaded by the international condemnation arising out of the coordinated protest to at least initiate some reform of the electoral system,” Rasiah said. Although BERSIH officials have repeatedly said that they are eager to ensure the rally is peaceful and problem-free, there is concern that such a huge event could turn ugly.
In a recent statement, the country’s Human Rights Commission reiterated that freedom of peaceful assembly is an important right that is enshrined in the Federal Constitution and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. But it also voiced fears and urged organizers to follow all relevant rules and laws.
While many Malaysians are supportive of BERSIH’s campaign for electoral reforms, some are unhappy with its decision to turn to the king for help in advancing democracy. The country’s small Parti Sosialis Malaysia (Socialist Party of Malaysia) is noticeably not involved with other major opposition political parties in the BERSIH-led campaign.
“The king has no power to improve conditions of democracy and justice because his duties are mostly ceremonial,” said a veteran retired newspaper editor explaining the reluctance of some people to associate with the monarchy. “Historically the monarchy has been hostile to democratic freedom and people’s power,” he told Inter Press Service. “Turning to the feeble monarchy for direction to make fundamental changes in society appears illogical and cannot be justified.”
“We should rely on mobilizing people at grassroots level to push for changes from bottom-up,” he said. “Top-down changes rarely hold for long.” Whatever the case, BERSIH supporters say their campaign is for the long term and that the November 10 rally will be just one in a long series of protests that will go beyond the upcoming general election.
“Our campaign is for the long term and our demand is for fundamental changes in the election system in line with changes taking place in other countries,” said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of SUARAM, a leading rights NGO. Among areas BERSIH says fundamental changes are needed is the first-past-the-post system that leads to disproportionate representation.
“We also want a system where minorities, indigenous peoples, women and pthers have a role and a voice that could be heard,” Yap said. “Parliament should be truly representative and not dominated by one ruling group. The system has to be re-engineered to fit the needs of all sections of the people.”
Another BERSIH demand is for the government to reintroduce local council elections, which were abolished in 1970 on grounds of “national security”.
BERSIH also wants the election commission to be restructured to ensure it is truly independent and finally permit international observers to monitor the election and suggest changes.
(Inter Press Service)