KUALA LUMPUR, April 29 — Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) initial joy at a larger crowd for this year’s Bersih rally turned sour after demonstrators broke down barricades and engaged in open battles with police yesterday, giving Umno hawks fodder ahead of coming elections.
Barisan Nasional (BN) supporters spent the night flooding social media networks claiming that participants of the rally for free and fair elections, backed by the opposition, attacked police with missiles and even overturned a patrol car.
It has put PR on the defensive, with PKR deputy president Azmin Ali telling The Malaysian Insider “Umno will try to link this to 1998,” a reference to claims that the Reformasi movement caused widespread street violence after Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was sacked as deputy prime minister.
“This will be widely contested over the media the next couple of days,” said political analyst Ong Kian Ming.
The UCSI lecturer told The Malaysian Insider that there was a “50-50” chance of a delay to polls, currently expected to be called by June, depending on the impact to Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s popularity with the international media playing a key role.
The foreign press’ condemnation of the government’s crackdown on last July’s Bersih rally led the prime minister to announce a raft of reforms including a parliamentary select committee on electoral improvements and the Peaceful Assembly Act that came into force on Monday.
But both have been criticised for being cosmetic and yesterday’s planned sit-in at Dataran Merdeka, which drew at least 25,000, was the first major test for the assembly law the Umno president says abides by “international norms.”
Initial international press reports have already been negative as police once again fired tear gas and water cannon at demonstrators. But the fact that protestors caused damage to persons and property when trying to force their way into the historic square will give BN some breathing space.
Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein also insisted police acted with restraint, and other BN leaders will likely point to how just 388 had been arrested as of 9pm yesterday, about a quarter of the total number who were swept up in last year’s clampdown.
Already, Bersih and PR leaders are distancing themselves from those who attacked police after Hishammuddin said at least 20 officers had sought hospital treatment.
Bersih chief Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan conceded the violence may be a blow to the push for democratic reforms as some may feel the rally “had gone wrong.”
But she called on the Najib administration to “go further and ask themselves why would the people be so prepared to put themselves in such a situation?”
After police fired tear gas and water cannon at demonstrators, some retaliated by attacking a police car whose driver tried to speed away but lost control and eventually crashed into a few rally-goers.
They were prevented from further attacking the police officers but still turned the car on its side.
Others later refused to disperse but began throwing broken bottles and concrete slabs at riot police and a convoy of police special forces ferrying KL mayor Tan Sri Ahmad Fuad Ismail in one of its cars.
Windows of two cars were smashed, forcing the convoy to turn around and flee.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia political science professor Shamsul Adabi Mamat said the scenes were the result of the opposition’s desperation ahead of polls that must be called within a year.
“Because the election is nearing, they (the opposition) must provoke and create an issue,” he told The Malaysian Insider.