Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak may avoid calling an early election this year after police clashed with thousands of opposition-backed activists July 9, signaling a rise in political risk in the Southeast Asian nation.
Police detained 1,697 people as demonstrators protesting against what they call unfair voting practices marched on Kuala Lumpur landmarks including Merdeka Stadium and the king’s palace. Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections chief Ambiga Sreenevasan was among those held, and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was injured when tear gas was fired, local media reported.
The protests were the biggest since 2007 in a nation governed by the United Malays National Organisation since Malaysia’s independence from the U.K. in 1957. They coincide with rising pressure for political change in Malaysia’s neighbors, with Thai voters this month ejecting a party that used soldiers to disperse opposition protests in 2010 that led to more than 90 deaths, and Singapore’s ruling party in May winning its narrowest election victory since independence.
“Judging from Saturday’s events, he’s losing support,” Ooi Kee Beng, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies said in a telephone interview from Singapore, referring to Najib. “I don’t think he will call a snap election now as he has everything to lose.”
While a vote isn’t due for two years, speculation that Najib would call an early election rose after his coalition won 77 percent of the seats in a local election in Sarawak state in April. The government isn’t frightened of facing the opposition in the general election, Najib was cited as saying yesterday by the official Bernama news service.
Equity investors showed little concern at the planned protests in the run-up to the event, with the FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index closing at a record on July 8.
The July 9 rally attracted about 6,000 people, the Star newspaper said, citing Inspector-General of Police Ismail Omar. Bersih, as the coalition is known, put the figure at 50,000, the Malaysian Insider reported. All those held, including 170 women and children, were later released, a police spokesman said.
This is “not the end, it is but one more step in the long walk for clean and fair elections in Malaysia,” Bersih said in a statement after the rally. The group said it would continue to attempt to deliver a memorandum of their positions to the king.
Bersih wants electoral changes, such as lengthening campaign periods to at least 21 days and using indelible ink on fingers to prevent people from voting more than once, according to its website.
The Election Commission is looking into extending the campaign period and plans to use biometric fingerprinting instead of indelible ink, Election Commission Chairman Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof said in a television interview with TV3 and Bernama on July 2. International observers may also be invited, he said.
Water cannons were used to disperse crowds in 2007 when similar protests drew 40,000 people in Kuala Lumpur. This was followed by riots led by Hindu-rights activists.
The ruling National Front coalition went on to suffer its biggest election losses since independence in the 2008 national poll, losing control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states to the opposition. Then-Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi resigned to take responsibility and was replaced by Najib in April 2009. The front has since regained control of one state, Perak.
Two Malay rights groups, Perkasa and UMNO Youth, which is an arm of Najib’s ruling party threatened to hold rival rallies should Bersih go ahead with street protests. UMNO Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin was also detained, police said.
The authorities rejected applications to use stadiums within Kuala Lumpur by all three groups, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on July 8.
Major roads into Malaysia’s capital were sealed on July 9 with road blocks, some train stations shut and buses diverted, leaving some parts of the city deserted.
Anwar, 62, was hospitalized for treatment to a bruise on his head and a cut on his leg after he fell when police fired tear gas at protesters, Malaysiakini reported online, citing the opposition leader. His bodyguard was “severely” injured by a tear gas canister, Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah told reporters.
Tian Chua, vice president of Anwar’s party, was among those a Bloomberg reporter saw detained by police. People’s Justice Party deputy president Azmin Ali was also arrested, along with three leaders of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, the Star said.
“The coming election is going to be a hotly contested one,” said Gerald Ambrose, who oversees about $429 million as head of Aberdeen Asset Management’s Malaysian unit in Kuala Lumpur. “One good thing about the protest is that Malaysia is put on the stage to show even more progress that is needed to convince all the people.”