Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – The Malaysian government is facing one of its most critical moments of the last ten years as it prepares for the 2008 general elections. Civil society groups, ethnic minorities and the opposition in parliament are united in their demands for electoral reform and greater royal intervention to guarantee justice against the authoritarianism of current Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.
The reality of the widespread dissatisfaction was brought home on Saturday when, according to organisers, 40,000 protesters took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The authorities ended up banning the mass gathering, and police used tear gas and water canons to disperse the crowd. Some 245 people were arrested but were eventually released after posting bail. The police intervention was however criticised in many quarters, including the Catholic community.
Anwar Ibrahim, a former Prime Minister and People’s Justice Party founder and now opposition leader, led the marchers. When he was sacked in 1998 popular protests followed.
The march was sponsored by the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih or transparency in Bahasa Malaysia), an alliance of five political parties and 29 social groups.
The demonstrators handed a petition to Malaysia’s king asking for reforms to bring greater transparency to next general elections.
The petition urged the monarch to refuse under the powers vested in him by the Federal Constitution to agree to the dissolution of parliament until the completion of a comprehensive scrutiny of the electoral rolls.
It also asked that the Election Commission be directed to abolish postal voting except for diplomats and Malaysian citizens residing abroad, to ensure equal access to the media to all parties contesting the general elections, and to strike the names of phantom voters from electoral rolls.
Saturday’s rally is but the latest challenge to the Badawi government, which has come under fire for failing in its fight against corruption and for encouraging discriminatory policies vis-à-vis the country’s Chinese and Indian minorities in favour of the Malay majority.
Analysts are convinced that the prime minister’s party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), is not likely to take 90 per cent of the seats in parliament as it did in 2004.
According to Fr Lawrence Andrew, from the Catholic weekly Herald, the Bersih march shows the political and social cracks in the country’s model, highlighting how some people get preferential treatment because they are on the right side of the political divide compared to those who just stand for rights in general.
For him these initiatives are fundamental in safeguarding the supremacy of the country’s constitution, which is threatened by personal interests and Islamic law.