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    Southeast Asia
     May 9, 2009
Democracy by force in Malaysia
By Anil Netto

IPOH, Perak - The battle of Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to regain control of the second-largest state on the Malaysian Peninsula may have come at a heavy price to its long-term credibility and raises questions about new Prime Minister Razak Najib's emerging brand of leadership.

Any semblance of democratic norms rapidly vanished this week when police entered the Perak state assembly hall and physically dragged away the opposition People's Alliance House speaker, in full ceremonial regalia, so that a candidate from the BN could take over the position.

Prior to the incident, rival assembly members were locked in a stand-off, with assembly members from the People's Alliance


calling for fresh state-wide elections for Perak and the BN claiming its right to lead the assembly after three defections this year gave it a slim majority of 31-28.

The defections, which came under questionable and controversial circumstances, sparked a constitutional crisis when the assembly speaker refused to recognize the defections and declared the three seats vacant. However, the Election Commission refused to endorse the holding of by-elections to fill the seats, nor would it allow the People's Alliance to dissolve the house to hold fresh state-wide elections.

Meanwhile, the assembly's privileges committee, made up of People's Alliance members, in apparent retaliation, suspended the BN's candidate for the Perak chief minister's post and his team of six assembly members appointed to other Perak government committee positions. That set the stage for the police raid on the state assembly building, where 69 People's Alliance supporters, including 10 elected representatives from the federal parliament and other state assemblies were detained.

Later people wearing black T-shirts to protest against a "black day" for Malaysian democracy were targeted as police had obtained a court injunction forbidding anyone from entering a 500-meter radius of the assembly building. Half a dozen riot police trucks blocked the main entrance to the assembly, and even opposition members of parliament were turned away from the opening ceremony of the assembly's sitting.

Perak was one of the five states, out of a total of 13, which fell to the People's Alliance in last year's watershed general election - the worst performance ever for the BN, which has ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since achieving independence from the colonial British.

Before taking power last month from premier Abdullah Badawi, Najib was widely seen as the driving force behind moves to restore the BN's power in Perak, including orchestrating the defections. A similar power grab unfolded in the state assembly on Thursday as speaker V Sivakumar refused to budge from his seat, even for lunch or to go the washroom, for fear the BN would install a new speaker.

That did not stop the BN assembly members from electing a non-assembly member to the seat, leveraging their 31-28 majority even though Sivakumar had rejected their motion and ordered the 10 suspended BN assembly members out of the assembly. But Sivakumar soon found his microphone was switched off and the situation verged on farce when the new BN appointed speaker R Ganesan put on ceremonial attire and sat on the aisle, even though speaker Sivakumar was still presiding.

BN lawyers argue that they had the numbers to elect a new speaker and had given adequate notice for the motion to remove Sivakumar. The BN was worried that the house would legally have to be dissolved for fresh state elections by May 13, when a six-month deadline for the house to hold a fresh sitting would expire. People's Alliance leaders argue that the BN's actions in the assembly on Thursday were "illegal, illegitimate and unconstitutional". The proceedings were held even before the issue of who is chief minister of Perak could be decided by the courts.

It all adds up to a constitutional and legal imbroglio, prompting many to call for fresh state elections to resolve the impasse. However, in view of its poor showings in recent by-elections, it is a prospect the BN seems reluctant to face. One joke making the rounds is that the people of Perak are fortunate to be served by a bounty of two chief ministers and now two state assembly speakers.

Najib's administration and his Perak colleagues may have won the power-play in Perak through the use of police force, but it will have come at a heavy cost in public perception and potentially longer-term support for the BN and Najib's previous "One Malaysia" call to national unity. Many Malaysians who watched events unfold over the Internet saw uncensored police entering the Perak state assembly and physically removing the Perak speaker, his legs trailing on the floor as he was dragged out of the chamber and then held in a nearby changing room for a number of hours.

Najib had received an earlier democratic blow when the BN lost two of three hotly contested by-elections held on April 7. Another by-election in Penanti is scheduled for May 31 and the BN is still of two minds about whether to field a candidate in a constituency that lies in People's Alliance leader Anwar Ibrahim's home turf on the island state of Penang.

Meanwhile, the controversy in Perak is expected to continue in the courts, though once ensconced in the seat of power the BN will not easily be dislodged with the machinery of power behind it. Najib's apparent zero tolerance of public protests and vigils, however, will remove an outlet for public disaffection over the lack of democratic reforms and raise the political temperature.

At least two dozen people were detained in Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Penang on Thursday evening when they attended vigils to express their concerns about the police raid in Perak. Less than one month on the job, Najib has shown a willingness to use force to ensure his political way and stirred strong doubts about his self-stated political reform credentials.

Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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