Mass Rally For Electoral Reforms to Defy Ban (IPS)

By Baradan Kuppusamy
KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 6 (IPS) – A mammoth opposition rally planned next week is set to expose such features of Malaysian elections as vote-buying, gerrymandering, fraud electoral rolls and blatant use of public resources to win votes — unless the government stops it.

Organised by ‘BERSIH’, a coalition of four main opposition political parties and 67 civil rights 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.
However, the government is dead set on stopping the rally, the biggest since Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi came to power in 2003, riding a wave of adulation that has since been soured by his failure to fight corruption and promote the rule of law.
The police have issued a warning that the rally, during which protestors will wear yellow as symbol of their unity and resolve, is banned and anybody who turns at independence square will be arrested.
Police have also warned that the proposed rally was unlawful because no permit is issued. They cite a pre-colonial law that bars gatherings of more then five people without a police permit.
“Despite the concerted threats we expect over 10,000 people to turn up,” Sivarasah Rasiah, a key organiser and vice-president of the opposition National Peoples Party told IPS.
“The threats are not going to force us to back down,” Rasiah said. “It is our democratic right to gather peacefully to show our unhappiness with the tainted system.”
All eyes are on the upcoming rally because many see it as the first real demand that Badawi institute the reforms that many say are sorely needed.
The challenge is all the more significant as the rally and march is 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 km away to submit a memorandum demanding electoral reforms.
The other leaders expected to join 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,” he said to loud applause.
BERSIH says, besides the outdated election laws, a cleanup of the electoral list is urgently needed to remove phantom voters. They also say the Election Commission must be made truly independent.
In the short term BERSIH is demanding four changes; permanent use of indelible ink to prevent repeated voting, clean up electoral rolls of phantom voters, abolish postal voting which is frequently abused by the government and equal access for all political parties to use the 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 the BERSIH.
“And the ‘wear yellow campaign’ signifies our united resolve to protest injustice,” he told IPS. “Yellow signifies solidarity towards the common cause of free and fair election.”
While Malaysians will march in the city on Nov 10, to add pressure on the government, supporters and representatives of BERSIH will organise 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 co-ordinate protest to at least initiated some reform of the electoral system,” Rasiah said.
Although BERSIH officials have repeatedly said that they are keen to ensure the rally is peaceful and problem-free, there is widespread 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 organisers to follow all relevant rules and laws.
While most Malaysians are supportive of BERSIH’s campaign for electoral reforms some are unhappy with its decision to turn to the king for help to advance democracy.
The country’s small Parti Sosialis Malaysia (Socialist Party of Malaysia) is noticeably not actively involved alongside other major opposition political parties in the BERSIH 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 reluctant of some people to associate with the monarchy.
“Historically the monarchy has been hostile to democratic freedom and people’s power,” he told IPS. “Turning to the feeble monarchy for direction to make fundamental changes in society appears is illogical and cannot be justified.”
“We should rely on mobilising people at grassroots level to push for changes from bottoms 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 Nov 10 rally is just one campaign in a long series that goes beyond the upcoming 12th general election.
“Our campaign is for the long term and our demand is for fundamental changes in the election system inline 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 were needed is the first-past-the-post system that leads to disproportionate representation.
“We also want a system where minorities, indigenous peoples, women and others have a role and a voice that could be heard,” Yap told IPS. “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,” he said.
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.