Not mellow yellow

From The Economist print edition
Nov 15th 2007 | BANGKOK

NO SELF-RESPECTING protest movement leaves home these days without its own colour scheme. Last weekend, tens of thousands of Malaysians wore canary-yellow shirts to defy a government ban and march in Kuala Lumpur, calling for fairer elections. Riot police blocked routes into the city and fired water cannon to break up the rally.

These were the largest anti-government protests since 1998-99, when angry supporters of a jailed former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, wore red and adopted the battle-cry of reformasi from neighbouring Indonesia. A decade on, the new buzzword is bersih (clean). But Mr Anwar is out of jail and again leading opposition to the entrenched elite he was once part of.
That entrenchment is maintained, says Mr Anwar, by dubious election procedures and a stacked electoral commission, supported by Malaysia’s state-controlled media and a pliant judiciary. Pundits predict that the prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, will go to the polls early next year. This adds to the urgency of calls to overhaul the electoral system.
Those calls met a predictably cool response from ministers. But the message was not aimed only at them. In an echo of last year’s anti-government uproar in Thailand, the yellow-clad masses marched to the palace of Malaysia’s constitutional monarch to hand in a petition urging clean and fair elections. The palace sent a courtier to accept the document. In both Thailand and Malaysia, yellow is associated with royalty. The difference between the two is that while Thailand’s crown wields immense clout, Malaysia’s royals are figureheads. Yet that might change.
Under Malaysia’s constitution, nine hereditary state sultans share a rotating five-year kingship. The sitting monarch signs bills into law, and formally appoints ministers and judges. But the rubber stamp hit back recently when the sultans refused to approve Mr Badawi’s choice for chief justice of a federal court. This unusual setback came as Malaysian lawyers staged their own protest by marching through the streets of the administrative capital, Putrajaya, in September over alleged meddling in the selection of judges. Their ire had been aroused by a video clip distributed by Mr Anwar that appeared to show a notable lawyer offering senior judgeships for sale.
None of this is likely to make much difference to ordinary voters who look to the long-ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation, for stability and growth. The opposition is fragmented and it would take more than electoral reform to vote out a ruling coalition that won 199 out of 219 parliamentary seats in 2004. Raja Petra Kamarudin, an opposition activist, says a realistic target for the next election is 60 seats. Still, even that might be enough to unseat Mr Badawi, who is more vulnerable to his own conniving comrades than to any opposition firebrand. A judicial scandal, mass rallies and an emboldened royalty may not usher in an opposition victory. But it could spell trouble for the man at the top.