All eyes now on how PM Najib will soothe inter-racial tensions and woo voters back
By Leslie Lopez
PRIME Minister Najib Abdul Razak successfully deflected one of the biggest challenges to his government's authority at the weekend, when security forces put down street protests demanding greater electoral reform.
But analysts say Datuk Seri Najib and his ruling Umno party have emerged badly bruised, largely because of the use of excessive force to block the rally, organised by a loose coalition of opposition parties and non-governmental organisations called Bersih.
What is more, they add, the defiance displayed by the thousands who braved a security lockdown of Kuala Lumpur was a clear demonstration of how much Malaysian society has been polarised by the country's divisive politics.
What began as a call for electoral reform by Bersih has grown to mean something more, particularly in the face of furious attacks against it by Utusan Melayu, the Umno-owned Malay language paper, and Perkasa, the Malay supremacist group that had earlier warned of race riots and issued threats of a counter-demonstration.
In effect, the Bersih rally has come to be a proxy for those in Malaysia - whether from the Malay community or otherwise - who want a break from the old system of race-based politics; in their view, electoral reform and other problems need serious attention, but not through the usual prism of race and religion, with its tendency to descend into an 'us versus the rest' contentiousness.
Analysts like Mr Ibrahim Suffian, a director of the Merdeka Centre, one of Malaysia's premier opinion research outfits, believe that the government's heavy-handed response to the rally may have provoked some among Malaysia's growing middle class who were previously fence-sitters to take a more partisan role in opposition politics.
'The incredulity of the government's response with fear, the banning of yellow T-shirts and linking the movement to communism has further distanced the government from voters, particularly the younger electorate,' he says.
Dr Bridget Welsh, associate professor of political science at the Singapore Management University, adds: 'There is no question that the government lost a large chunk of support from the multi-ethnic middle ground and chattering classes.'
Mr Najib's multi-racial ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government also staged a march on the same day. But the group, numbering in the hundreds, comprised only members of Umno's youth wing. Conspicuously missing were representatives from the ruling coalition's Chinese and Indian component parties.
Although the turnout for the Bersih rally was not as big as its organisers had hoped, the tens of thousands of people who turned up still amounted to a setback for Mr Najib, who has worked hard to regain public trust in his BN coalition.
The BN leadership will also surely not forget that the coalition took a severe hit in the March 2008 election after the first Bersih rally was held months earlier. Then, too, the rally drew thousands of protesters.
The challenge now for Mr Najib's government is how to claw back the support of disenchanted voters. His next moves will be watched keenly.
Economists, for instance, will be keeping a watchful eye on whether Malaysia's political woes will distract the government from efforts to deal with critical issues such as inflationary pressures.
Then, there is the impact on the delicate racial balance that has kept Malaysia together since independence in 1957.
Whether it is ultra-Malay Perkasa or the opposition Democratic Action Party standing up for the minority races, all parties have become more vocal and more assertive in standing their ground.
How Mr Najib manages inter-racial tensions while trying to woo back voters from across the ethnic divide will be a big challenge in the months ahead, particularly if he plans to call for a snap election.
There is yet another big worry for the Umno-led government: The deepening split within the politically dominant Malay Muslim community.
Of the thousands who took part in last Saturday's rally, most were Malays. They form more than 60 per cent of Malaysia's population, and are the source upon which Umno's power rests.
But Umno's position as the Malays' favoured party has been steadily undercut since the 1998 falling out between then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy Anwar Ibrahim, the current leader of the opposition.
The opposition under Datuk Seri Anwar has focused on issues such as corruption and good governance. The high rally turnout among Malays suggests that this is having an effect on the community's support for Bersih's demands on matters such as electoral reform and overhauling the security and justice institutions.
This is significant because stability and bread-and-butter issues have long been Umno's way of getting Malay voters, especially rural ones, on its side.
Clearly, the old ways are not working as well as they used to: Malaysia's voters have become more assertive and fragmented along new lines.
Mr Ibrahim says: 'The Malaysian government needs to be more imaginative to deal with the changing political environment. Brute force is not a long-term solution; engagement is.'