Najib under spotlight as world watches Bersih 3.0
KUALA LUMPUR, April 28 — Datuk Seri Najib Razak's administration will come under the world's microscope today as Malaysians gather once again to test the government's commitment towards democratic reforms, just months before the nation heads to the polls.
Analysts and opposition politicians say Najib must tread carefully as his handling of Bersih 3.0 will be even more closely scrutinised than the previous rally for free and fair elections on July 9 last year.
Bersih steering committee member Hishammuddin Rais told The Malaysian Insider that media organisations to the tune of hundreds have flown in from across the globe to cover this afternoon's tumultuous event, Bersih's third attempt at demanding electoral reforms.
As such, any use of force or violence against the civilians thronging the streets today will likely result in screaming international headlines of yet another major crackdown on civil freedom in Malaysia, something that Najib can ill-afford.
"Nobody wants to see pictures of the public being attacked by the police. For the government, if the police could just do their job as protectors, this whole episode would just pass on," said Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent pollster Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research.
But there appears to be general consensus that no one will be dragged, cuffed, into waiting police trucks today, or return home fatigued, eyes burning from tear gas, skin itching from chemical-laced water.
"Police action will be severely limited out of fear for bad press triggering another wave of discontent against the Barisan Nasional (BN) government," said DAP publicity chief Tony Pua.
"I cannot read what is on Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein's mind but I doubt the police force will be as trigger-tear gas happy as they were the last time," PKR vice president Nurul Izzah Anwar added.
Hishammuddin (Rais) also said "the police will handle it with care" as it would be "suicidal if they were to brutalise the peaceful protestors who only want to conduct a sit-in."
Electoral reforms analyst Dr Ong Kian Ming even believes that protestors will be allowed past the barricades surrounding Dataran Merdeka, the iconic square that had become the bone of contention between rally organisers and the authorities over the past few weeks.
"I think the police will be more concentrated on crowd control this time and my sense is that although there is a court order, the authorities will eventually open up Dataran and allow the sit-in to proceed," he told The Malaysian Insider when contacted yesterday.
Following the City Hall's repeated rejection of Bersih's plan to use the square for its rally today, city police had obtained a signed magistrate's order banning the public from encroaching into the historical space.
Undeterred, Bersih plans today to gather at six separate locations before marching and converging on the venue, pledging they would not be shooed from the place where their forefathers had declared freedom for Malaysians.
“The court order only covers Dataran. Bersih won’t break the order or the barriers...we will go as close as we can to Dataran.
“But we hope that the authorities will show us good faith and let us through, they can still do that," Bersih's co-chair Datuk Ambiga Sreenavasan told a press conference yesterday.
City police chief Deputy Comm Datuk Mohmad Salleh has given the green light to Bersih's plan to congregate at locations outside Dataran Merdeka, acknowledging a provision under the newly-enforced Peaceful Assembly Act 2011 that allows for public assemblies.
But, the provision does not cover assemblies in motion.
This is why protestors may still find themselves in a clash with riot police if they march as a group from the six locations towards Dataran Merdeka.
But, agreed the politicians and analysts, this would likely result in an abrupt end to Najib's climbing popularity.
"If there is a crackdown, or images of people being beaten up, immediately, the kind of political capital that Najib has been trying to rebuild will evaporate. He would have to start from square one," Ibrahim said.
Hishammuddin said Najib and BN may not only bleed votes but may lose their chance to sway Malaysia's middle ground into their fold.
"The undecided voters, we have heard that is some 40 per cent of the electorate... they may decide against BN. These voters are vital to the country's direction," he said.
Ong took a more neutral approach, saying that while the backlash could cause a chink in BN's armour, it may not win the polls for the opposition.
However, Najib was not likely to take his chances, the academic added, predicting that the prime minister would postpone the 13th general election for a few months until the Bersih 3.0 wave subsides.
But backlash predictions aside, none of these observers have strong convictions over whether Bersih 3.0 would achieve its objectives.
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"I think, if my earlier predictions are true that there would be no violence, that the rally would remain peaceful, then I think Najib would just stick with the PSC (Parliamentary Select Committee) report and not do anything significant before the next general election," said Ong. Bersih 3.0 was mooted following the group's dissatisfaction over the PSC's reform recommendations.
Ibrahim said it was near impossible to guess the "what's next after Bersih 3.0", admitting that things could simply return back to what it was.
"I am not sure. Public expectations would be heightened but a lot depends on the government. If there is not enough done to improve the elections, the government may still run and win the elections, even though their legitimacy would be called to question," he said.
Nurul Izzah concurred with the analysts.
"I doubt Najib will give in, with so much at stake," she admitted.
Bersih 3.0, the third mass protest spearheaded by a coalition of some 84 NGOs, is expected to be joined by simultaneous rallies nationwide and in 71 cities spanning 29 countries across the globe.