Malaysia PM suddenly has a fight on his hands

Wed Nov 14, 2007
By Sayed Salahuddin

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s biggest anti-government protest in a decade has ended in a cloud of tear gas, but one thing is now clear — the prime minister has a fight on his hands as he heads to the next election.

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, expected to call a snap election in the next few months, had appeared to be cruising toward a second term in office until last weekend’s rally, which brought around 10,000 people onto the streets, calling for electoral reform.
It was the biggest protest since former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim led tens of thousands of people onto the streets of the capital in 1998, whipping up a “Reformasi” movement that went on to hurt the government at elections held the following year.
Abdullah’s coalition is in no real danger of losing office — he has a record majority and a peerless political machine — but political analysts say Saturday’s protest, and the prospect of more, could make him question the wisdom of an early poll.
The next election does not have to be held until early 2009.
“The time is not right for them (the government),” said Ooi Kee Beng, of Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies.
“There are too many things going on that have made people quite dissatisfied, if not angry, with the government. They will wait for a time when the ‘feel-good factor’ … is higher.”
Khoo Kay Peng, who runs a local independent Web site of political commentary, said it would be risky for Abdullah to call a snap poll without dealing with the issue of electoral reform.
“Saturday’s protest has awakened people’s awareness,” Khoo said. “Abdullah has to look at the elections and convince people that elections are fair,” he added.
Saturday’s protest was organised by Bersih, a coalition of opposition groups and civil societies who have united to demand a clean-up of the electoral roll, elimination of so-called “phantom voters”, curbs on postal voting and equal access to the government-friendly mainstream media for all political groups.
The ruling multi-racial coalition, which has governed in several different forms since independence 50 years ago, has denied that there is a need for reform and has said Saturday’s protest was an illegal assembly by opposition trouble-makers.
But the protest revealed another uncomfortable fact for the coalition, Singapore’s Ooi said — that opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who helped stage it, was still a potent political foe.
“It puts Anwar back on the map in a big way,” Ooi said.
“With this demonstration and the support that has been shown, he will have to be taken very seriously from now on.”
Anwar, who led the 1998 “Reformasi” protests, and his supporters have promised to stage more protests on the theme of electoral reform — one of the few issues that all opposition groups, ranging from Islamists to leftists, can agree on.
“You know in the past, we hardly appeared on the streets until we had no confidence in the police, judiciary and in the elections,” Anwar told Reuters by phone this week.
“Now we have come to that stage (again)… We have exhausted all avenues, except to go to the street,” he added, comparing the mood now with that of his old “Reformasi” movement.
Anwar had been dismissed publicly by both the government and some political analysts as a spent force in Malaysian politics.
The 60-year-old’s political party had failed to make a dent in the ruling coalition at a recent by-election, and even foreign journalists, who once regularly attended his news conferences, had stopped turning up to hear him speak.
Now, for the first time since Anwar was released from prison three years ago, he has shown he can still pull a crowd — and not just any crowd: Saturday’s protesters were mostly Malays, the majority ethnic group and the government’s core constituency.
Malays have always been Anwar’s main supporters. He was once heir apparent to lead the main Malay ruling party, a step away from the prime ministership, before he was sacked from government in 1998 and jailed on what he called trumped-up charges.
“He is a figure that most opposition see as a leader to voice their demands,” said Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Action Party, acknowledging Anwar’s role in galvanising the country’s disparate opposition parties.