20,000 Malaysians gathered in downtown Kuala Lumpur on Saturday to rally for changes to Malaysia’s electoral system. The protest occurred despite warnings from the government that it was illegal and would not be allowed to take place.
Police beat some demonstrators with batons, fired tear gas and water cannons, and detained more than 1,600 people, including some pro-government protestors. The detainees were all released Sunday.
Protest organisers contend that even more people would have attended, but government forces sealed off roads and closed nearby train stations to keep people away.
Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein criticized the protestors for refusing to gather at another site supported by the government, and complimented the police for preventing more serious incidents.
The government has also said publicly that rally organizers were in fact less interested in changes to the electoral system and more keen on embarrassing the government to boost popular support for the opposition parties in advance of the next national elections (which, by law must be held by spring 2013).
Some have expected Prime Minister Najib Razak to call elections this year, rather than wait for 2013, considering the success of his recent “1Malaysia” campaign and the nation’s robust economic recovery. Still, Saturday’s rally shows that the ruling party still faces some challenges in its campaign for reelection.
Rally leaders said there are currently no plans for another major protest, but they will continue to apply pressure to the government, by continuing to organise opposition members outside of Kuala Lumpur.
Report & Analysis: Malaysia protest lifts opposition [Wall Street Journal, 11 Jul 2011]
Prime Minister Najib accused opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of planning the rally to drum up support for his campaign to be the next prime minister. “He knows that if he does not do anything, we (the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition) will win in the 13th general election.”
Anwar’s opposition denied Barisan Nasional an outright two-thirds majority in the 2008 elections, the first time that has happened since 1969. The opposition believes it would have done even better had voting been more fair. Thus, they continually demanded that there be more changes made to the electoral system to prevent vote buying, multiple voting, and ensure equal access to the media for all parties.
Rights groups have criticised the government’s handling of the rally, as Human Rights Watch denounced the arrests, and Amnesty International spokeswoman Donna Guest called it “the worst campaign of repression we’ve seen in the country for years.”
Report & Analysis: Malaysian PM defends protest crackdown [AFP, 9 Jul 2011]