Bersih 3.0 wants to sit down and protest

Malaysian election watchdog Bersih 2.0 (Bersih) announced that 28 April 2012 is the date for a third gathering for clean and fair elections, but already a succession of politicians and officials have criticised the move. So far, though, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has kept mum.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s department (and de facto Law Minister) Nazri Abdul Aziz was the first to attack the sit down protest plans, saying that the proposed venue Merdeka Square had “not been gazetted as an area for peaceful gatherings”.

One politician from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) labelled it a “ploy” by the Opposition, and Electoral Commission (EC) deputy chairman Wira Wan Ahmad Wan Omar said Bersih’s plans were “rushed, hasty and troublesome to people.”

The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on electoral reforms, formed in response to the second Bersih gathering in July 2011, had only just released a report, Wan Ahmad said, and the EC had yet to study the report’s 22 recommendations.

Wan Ahmad’s point about the PSC report is the only tweak in the rhetoric that’s been employed in attacking Bersih since 2007, the year the first Bersih protest was held.

Similarly, there has been little change in the message from Bersih. Concerns over vote-buying, electoral fraud, and a media stranglehold by BN drove the initial protest plans. Specifically, Bersih mentioned there being addresses with multiple (often tens) of voters (making room for phantom voters), the postal voter roll being separate from the main electoral roll (again allowing for phantom voters), reports of non-Malaysians being granted citizenship in exchange for their votes, and the independence of the EC (a 1962 amendment to the constitution meant parliament determined the terms of office for EC members).

But many critical events have taken place in the intervening years, which make this persistent stance against electoral reforms on the part of BN politicians appear both incredulous and an omen of worse things to come.

When then-Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi made comments on the 2007 effort – the day before the planned gathering and in a fairly cursory manner, in a winding-up speech he was giving at his party’s general assembly – he too spoke of the event disturbing the peace of the rakyat, or people, and questioned the legality of the protest.

Months later, general elections saw BN lose its two thirds majority in parliament for only the second time since Malaysia’s independence. Despite retaining a simple majority, the result was widely regarded as a “defeat” for BN.

Although none of the Bersih demands had been met, with the EC actually adopting and then publicly scrapping at the last minute plans proposed by Bersih to use indelible ink to identify voters and prevent identity fraud, many noted the impact of the first Bersih protest on the election results.

Badawi, who had led the government to “defeat”, was quickly pressured to resign. His deputy, Najib, succeeded him, and projected a reformist image which steadily increased his support.

Rumours of another general election soon began circulating, and with that an awareness that there’d been no electoral reform since the first protest. A second gathering was organised, and 1,667 people were arrested. Najib’s swift vow to “not budge at all” and the harsh crackdown on demonstrators saw him lose ground with the electorate.

Some estimates have 50,000 people attending that second gathering in Kuala Lumpur (there were also Bersih rallies in 38 cities across the world). Under pressure for reform and on the receiving end of international condemnation, Najib set up the PSC on electoral reforms in October.

Early this month, the PSC released a report into their findings. The speaker in the Dewan Rakyat, or House of Representatives, passed the report with no debate before putting an early end to the session.

Critics pointed to the refusal of the Speaker to also accept an Opposition proposal of a minority report, despite the argument of there being precedence for such a move in other similar parliamentary democracies. The minority report would have included dissenting views from Opposition members of the PSC.

The PSC report included a recommendation that addresses with more than 50 voters be investigated, and also an acknowledgment that non-Malaysians were being granted citizenship in exchange for a vote, though they limited the problem to only happening in the East Malaysian state of Sabah.

Unifying the postal voter roll with the main electoral roll was not detailed, nor were plans to make the EC independent of parliament. Electoral rolls would still not be challengeable in a court once certified by the EC, and the EC would retain the power to modify the electoral roll, without public inspection and objection procedures such as those provided for supplementary rolls (that is, the list of new voters).

Concerns were also raised that the PSC report continued to disenfranchise voters not in the boundaries of their constituency on election day. Distance voting was not mentioned, and although overseas voters did have their voting rights affirmed, the campaign period was thought too brief to allow overseas voters to send and receive their postal ballots.

In addition, many of the recommendations in the report did not carry timelines – meaning it was possible that a proposed reform might not be implemented in time for the next general election.

Bersih has responded quickly to the prospect of what they call the “dirtiest” ever elections Malaysia faces in its call for an April 28 global protest.

Meanwhile, the PSC report has failed to reinstate Najib to his position as reformer amongst increasingly cynical voters.

Dahlia Martin has written for numerous publications in the past, and is currently doing her PhD on motherhood and Malay Muslim identity at Flinders University.