KUALA LUMPUR, April 29 — Yesterday’s Bersih rally may undermine Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s image as a reformist and delay polls expected by June, according to initial foreign media reports after police fired water cannon at protestors who defied a court order barring the public from Dataran Merdeka.
The tear gas has barely settled after at least 25,000, more than last July’s rally for free and fair elections, turned up for the planned sit-in, and were forcibly dispersed after some broke through the barricade around the historic square.
“Police fired tear gas and chemical-laced water at thousands of protesters demonstrating for cleaner elections, potentially undermining Prime Minister Najib Razak’s efforts to present himself as a political reformer with elections months away,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
Several newswires, picked up by major newspapers globally, also took the same line, with Reuters reporting that police action raised “the risk of a political backlash that could delay national polls which had been expected as early as June.”
“The protest presents a delicate challenge for Najib. The violence could carry risks for Prime Minister Najib Razak if it is seen as unjustified... Najib’s approval rating tumbled after July last year when police were accused of a heavy handed response to the last major electoral reform rally,” it reported.
Agence France-Presse also said that “the rally poses a dilemma for Najib, who since last year’s crackdown has sought to portray himself as a reformer, launching a campaign to repeal authoritarian laws in a bid to create what he called ‘the greatest democracy’.”
Several reports pointed to the first Bersih rally held just months before the March 2008 elections, which saw Barisan Nasional (BN) record its worst electoral performance ever, ceding its customary two-thirds supermajority in Parliament and five state governments.
Najib took over from Tun Abdullah Badawi a year later, ostensibly to improve on the results and some observers say only a return to two-thirds majority will guarantee he remains Umno president.
“I’m sure this weighs on Prime Minister Najib’s mind. It’s very clear already that the opposition has every intention to piggyback on Bersih,” Bloomberg quoted Joseph Chinyong Liow, associate dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, as saying.
Widespread condemnation from the international press of Putrajaya’s crack down on last July’s Bersih rally saw Najib announce a raft of reforms including a parliamentary select committee on electoral reforms and the Peaceful Assembly Act, a major concession to win back an alienated middle-class.
But the findings of a bipartisan panel have been criticised as cosmetic by civil society and the opposition and yesterday’s planned sit-in was the first major test of the new law regulating demonstrations the BN chief says abides by “international norms”.
The foreign press widely carried global civil liberties watchdog Human Rights Watch’s criticism of the government, saying it showed “contempt for its people’s basic rights and freedoms.”
“Despite all the talk of ‘reform’ over the past year, we’re seeing a repeat of repressive actions by a government that does not hesitate to use force when it feels its prerogatives are challenged,” said Phil Robertson, its deputy Asia director.
Singapore’s Straits Times also reported that “while both police and protesters are blaming each other for the mayhem... it is undoubtedly a public relations disaster” for Najib, although the island-state itself barred Malaysians from holding a simultaneous sit-in there.
“The political fallout may be severe, going by past precedents. The size of yesterday’s crowd, easily in the tens of thousands, also surpassed expectations. That sends a grim message to the Prime Minister who had worked hard to regain the support of the middle-class urban electorate,” the newspaper reported.
But the most damning articles have come out of Australia, whose independent senator Nicholas Xenophon was caught in the tear gas crossfire while observing proceedings.
Invited by Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as part of an international fact-finding mission on electoral practices in Malaysia, he said that Canberra must rethink its relationship with Putrajaya.
“I wonder whether the Australian government has been mute about human rights issues... by virtue of our reliance on the refugee swap deal.
“It raises serious questions over how authoritarian it is,” he said in a statement that was reported across several Australian newspapers, referring to plans to swap 800 asylum seekers with 4,000 processed refugees from Malaysia.