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Monday, November 12, 2007

Malaysia’s Badawi under pressure after protests

Financial Times (11/11/2007): Malaysia saw its biggest anti-government rally in nearly a decade at the weekend, suggesting that the government of Abdullah Badawi could face a tougher time at the next general election than its landslide victory in 2004.

The protest was called by the election watchdog group Bersih, which means "clean" in Malay, to demand electoral reforms ahead of polls expected to be called in the first quarter of 2008. All three main opposition parties supported the demonstration.

The opposition coalition wants an overhaul of what it says are unreliable voter lists and biased media coverage that favours the government.

The demonstration was led by Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader, whose sacking as deputy prime minister in 1998 led to the last sizeable street protests. Mr Anwar vowed further protests, in spite of a government ban on demonstrations.

The protesters, who organisers said numbered up to 30,000, clashed briefly with riot police, who used used water cannons and tear gas. But the rally ended peacefully with a petition requesting reforms being delivered to the king’s palace in the centre of Kuala Lumpur.

Police said 245 people were detained but later released on bail.

The demonstration in the country’s capital was the latest challenge to Mr Abdullah's government, which has been criticised for failing to tackle corruption and promoting the interests of the country's ethnic Malay majority at the expense of the Chinese and Indian minorities.

Analysts believe that the government will fail to achieve the same level of support that it received in the 2004 elections, when it gained more than 90 per cent of the parliamentary seats.

An election setback could weaken support within the ruling United Malays National Organisation for Mr Abdullah's economic reforms, including the restructuring of state companies and the creation of special economic zones that repeal many of the affirmative action provisions for ethnic Malays.

The protest came a day after the conclusion of the annual Umno party conference, where Mr Abdullah made a plea for ethnic harmony.

Delegates at previous Umno gatherings have lobbied for the protection of special privileges for ethnic Malays, who are not as well off financially as the ethnic Chinese minority. This year's meeting was more subdued as the government wants to win the support of Chinese voters in the next election.

However, signs of greater ethnic polarisation mean that the majority of Chinese voters, who make up 25 per cent of the electorate, are likely to support the opposition at the next polls.

The protesters at the weekend demonstration wore yellow, the colour of royalty, in a plea for the royal aristocracy to reassert its influence on politics. Several royal family members have called for a relaxation of the autocratic rule that was established by Mahathir Mohamad, Mr Abdullah's predecessor.

The political power of the sultans, the hereditary rulers of nine of Malaysia’s 13 states, who are elected on a rotating basis to five-year terms as king, was curbed by Dr Mahathir in the 1980s.

Mr Abdullah also faces dissension within the ruling National Front coalition government, which includes representatives from the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

The demolition of a Hindu temple last week provoked accusations by the Malaysian Indian Congress, a coalition partner, that authorities were pursuing a policy of destroying Indian religious sites. Authorities have been pulling down illegal temples, but the Indian community feels singled out.


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