Defiant light in post-election darkness
By Anil Netto
PENANG - Defying prior police warnings that their opposition gathering was illegal, some 60,000 people converged on a field next to a shopping mall on the outskirts of the capital Kuala Lumpur. The May 25 demonstration marked the climax of a series of rallies across Malaysia to protest alleged irregularities and fraud at recently held general elections.
As the field's floodlights were extinguished, rally-goers held up their illuminated cell phones and lighters, transforming the field into a glowing mass. It was a symbolic statement that three weeks after a much-anticipated general election the widespread
shock and outrage over the outcome has yet to dissipate, especially in urban areas.
In the run-up to Saturday's event, nine post-election rallies dubbed "People's Voice, Sacred Voice" were held in a string of major cities across the peninsula. Turnout at the events ranged from 30,000 to over 100,000 protestors. A leitmotif among speakers and participants was that the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) had been denied victory in an electoral system stacked in favor of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
Despite securing 50.8% of the popular vote, PR was unable to dislodge the BN, spearheaded by the dominant United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) which has governed the country consecutively since independence was achieved in 1959. The BN managed only 47.3% of valid votes, with that figure dipping lower in the more-developed peninsula.
Because of the way many parliamentary constituency boundaries are delineated, seats where BN is known to be strong have fewer voters than in seats where the PR is dominant. Despite winning 3.5% fewer votes, the BN was able to claim 60% of parliament's 222 seats, the bulk of them in rural constituencies where "1Malaysia" branded populist handouts had a greater impact.
Still, the BN's tally of 133 seats was seven lower than the number it won at the 2008 general election. Though UMNO itself won more seats, increasing its dominance within BN, its sister parties suffered a significant erosion in popular support. PR bagged 89 seats, up seven from the number it won at the last polls.
Post-election rally rhetoric has been strident, with speakers and demonstrators characterizing the election as "tipu" (fraudulent). At Saturday's rally organized by several dozen non-government organizations, protestors called for the resignation of the Election Commission's leadership and for by-elections in constituencies where fraud is proven.
Many speakers also highlighted how indelible ink used to prevent voters from casting multiple ballots easily washed off with light scrubbing. Use of the ink was one of the key demands of the civil society-led Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) because of the 272,000 police and military personnel and their spouses who were eligible for early voting five days before the polls.
Prime Minister Najib Razak's new BN-led administration has responded to the rallies with stern warnings and a crackdown reminiscent of the methods of former premier Mahathir Mohamad, an autocrat who ruled the country for 22 years until 2003. With a hardline home affairs minister and an inspector general of police both recently appointed, authorities have flexed their muscles against the protests.
Two politicians and four activists have been charged with sedition, while another six have been charged in court for allegedly violating the Peaceful Assemblies Act for failing to provide 10 days notice to police before holding rallies. Arrests made under the colonial era Sedition Act have raised eyebrows considering that Najib pledged last July to repeal the law and replace it with a National Harmony Act as part of his political reform drive.
In another move reminiscent of the Mahathir era, home ministry officials raided newspaper distributors and vendors and confiscated newspapers belonging to PR parties, including Suara Keadilan, published by Anwar Ibrahim's People's Justice Party; Harakah, published by the Islamic Party, PAS; and The Rocket, published by the Democratic Action Party. Authorities claimed all had failed to abide by the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which includes provisions that restrict the circulation of political party newspapers to only party members.
While the confiscations will only marginally dent access to information about the PR's constituent parties among urban supporters who rely heavily on on-line news sources, print newspapers remain important in rural areas where Internet penetration rates are still low. Strong warnings have also been issued against bloggers and social media users in recent days, with a couple of political bloggers arrested for further investigations.
Public reaction to the arrests underscore Malaysia's emerging new political landscape. During student activist Adam Adli's remand, hundreds of people defied police warnings against gathering and lit candles in nightly vigils outside the police station where he was held. On the fifth night of vigils, on May 22, police cracked down and arrested 18 people participating in the vigil.
However, that did not stop more people from turning up for yet another vigil on May 23, reflecting a new resolve among pro-democracy supporters. Despite the arrests and broad crackdown, tens of thousands of people flocked to yet another post-election rally that same night in the east coast town of Kuala Terengganu.
Hardliners in Najib's administration may yearn for a return of Mahathir's authoritarianism, when dissent was corralled and barely tolerated. But Mahathir never had to cope with opposition organized over social media. One feature of the post-election rallies has been the high numbers of youth turning out at the rallies. "Even school pupils are talking about 'Ubah!' (Change!)," said one parent.
These politicized young people appear more determined and less easily intimidated. At all the post-election rallies, most participants wore black shirts to mourn the death of democracy, blared vuvuzelas (horns) and, on Saturday, held out their cell phones to symbolize light glowing in the darkness.
With the momentum of the rallies, PR is turning its attention to filing court petitions for close to 30 disputed parliamentary seats. They have 21 days from the date the results were officially published in a government gazette on May 23 to file the challenges. Bersih (Malay for "clean", the influential civil society coalition for clean and fair elections, is also expected to hold a 'People's Tribunal' to probe specific allegations of fraud and vote-buying. These and other moves will pile further pressure on the embattled Election Commission.
For now, BN is feeling grass roots pressure to move away from its traditional race-based politics and is apparently mulling a change in coalition structure that might include a rebranding exercise. Some analysts have speculated BN may move to co-opt the federal government's "1Malaysia" slogan used in its various populist hand-out scheme as a new coalition moniker.
BN still clearly appeals to rural voters who are more concerned with bread-and-butter development issues, including a rising cost of living. Among significant segments of the rural poor, there is still a belief that Najib's BN-led government will provide infrastructural development in return for their electoral support. Many traditional BN supporters also find a sense of security in pro-Malay affirmative action policies, which they fear will be eroded with a PR-promised shift towards more meritocracy.
But it will take more than rebranding and restructuring to convince increasingly aware urban voters, many of them youths, who crave more tangible progress towards democracy, social justice and an end to the rampant corruption and cronyism many believe the BN coalition has come to embody.
Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.
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