Monday 11 July 2011

Assessing the impact of Bersih 2.0

COMMENT It is far from easy to objectively evaluate the political and electoral impact of the Bersih 2.0 rally in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, especially when one was in the middle of the said rally, receiving 'presents' in the form of tear gas canisters from our beloved police force.

But given the huge amount of press attention and public spotlight in the lead-up to and during the rally, it would be remiss not to consider the possible political and electoral repercussions, especially since the first Bersih rally was seen as being instrumental in sparking off the March 2008 electoral tsunami.
bersih rally petaling street 090711It is useful to differentiate between the political impact of the rally - the overall negative backlash against the authorities, the increased level of political awareness among first-time marchers, the effect of social media on overall sentiment - with the electoral impact of the rally - how this backlash is distributed among the different regions and individual parliament and state seats. 

My assessment is that the political impact of the rally outweighs the electoral impact of the rally because of the relative lack of violence on the part of the police and the Klang-Valley-focused nature of this campaign.

There was a real possibility that Bersih 2.0 would be a 'game changer' in Malaysia's political history. The over-reaction of the police coupled with the refusal on the part of the prime minister and his home minister to find an agreeable compromise with the organisers of the rally set the scene for a potentially violent showdown.
bersih rally july 9 crowd face-off with police 1The potential of as many as 100,000 participants gathering on the streets of KL could have overwhelmed the police and resulted in many acts of unplanned violence and possibly even fatalities among the marchers.

In the end, while the reaction of the police were excessive, especially in light of the peaceful nature of the rallies taking place in different parts of the city, they followed a well-rehearsed playbook of using non-lethal means of dispersing the crowd including teargas, water cannons and selective arrests. 

The one unfortunate death which did occur, that of Baharuddin Ahmad, was as a result of a heart condition rather than the direct consequence of a police assault. There wasn't a 'Mohammed Bouzizi' moment (the Tunisian fruit seller who set himself alight) or the 'occupation' of a symbolic location (like Tahrir Square). The police were far more restrained compared to their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria.

Lack of violence limits electoral backlash

It is because of this relative lack of violence that limits the electoral backlash against the BN. Please do not misunderstand me here. I am not advocating for acts of self-immolation and provocation that will result in lethal police force being applied as a means of swinging voter sentiment against the ruling coalition.
NONEI am merely pointing to the political reality that the voter backlash is somewhat commensurate with the level of violence displayed by the authorities. If the authorities had reacted by shooting at the unarmed protesters which would most definitely have resulted in fatalities, the condemnation which would have been heaped on the government would have been much more severe and widespread.

This is not to say that there was no electoral impact as a result of the manner in which the government mismanaged and over-reacted to the demands of the Bersih coalition.
One can be certain that the voters in the Klang Valley who were unnecessarily inconvenienced by the arbitrary roadblocks set up days before the July 9 rally would blame the government and the police rather than Bersih or the opposition parties which were mobilising support for the Bersih rally. 

NONERoadblocks set up in places as far as Dengkil would surely be seen as excessive and not commensurate to the supposed 'threat' posed by the Bersih rally. Klang Valley voters are also much more likely to consume news through alternative media sources and would discount much of the 'spin' that was being issued by the mainstream press.
In addition, these voters are also more likely to have friends and family who participated in the rally and can give a first-hand account to contrast the peaceful approach of the marchers with the uncompromising and unreasonable actions taken by the police.

Others outside the Klang Valley who would also have been incensed and taken aback by the police reaction are likely to be urban dwellers with some political interest and knowledge as well as access to online sources of information.

But these are voters who had already voted for the opposition in 2008 and would likely, especially after Bersih 2.0, vote for the opposition in the next general election. Sure, there may have been some fence-sitters in the urban areas who may have been disillusioned with Pakatan Rakyat after March 2008 who would now not vote for the BN because of Bersih 2.0, but the outcome in these urban seats would be the same as it was in 2008.

Impact likely to be more limited in marginal seats

This negative electoral backlash against the BN will be helpful to the opposition in retaining marginal seats like Hulu Langat, Wangsa Maju and Kuala Langat in Selangor/KL but its impact is likely to be much more limited in marginal Pakatan seats like Padang Serai and Kulim Bandar Baharu in Kedah and in the less urbanised seats of Indera Mahkota in Pahang and Bagan Serai in Perak, just to name a few.

NONEThis assessment does not downplay the political awakening experienced by many of the first-time marchers at this rally, including the many middle class participants who experienced their first whiff of tear gas (such as myself).
I have yet to find someone who said they regretted attending this rally. Many experienced acts of kindness by fellow marchers, many were impressed by the peaceful orientation of the rallies and many felt a Malaysian bonding experience that was more genuine than any concocted by empty sloganeering. 

This is where Bersih has been the most successful - in maximising the political impact among those who either participated or supported the right to participate in this rally. The challenge now is to translate these experiences into continued advocacy and activism in the lead up to the next general election, whether it is through NGOs or political parties.

NONEThis leads to the question of 'what's next' for Bersih? The movement has proved its point by showing that a large number of Malaysians can gather, despite the many roadblocks set up by the police, and march peacefully, despite the heavy handed reactions of the police. But a Bersih 3.0 rally is not likely in the near future, at least not before the next general election. 

The committee will try to find a more low-key manner to submit the memorandum to the King after which a time of regrouping and reevaluation is needed. It makes sense to leverage on the current momentum by expanding Bersih to areas beyond the Klang Valley.
One of the factors which lessened the political impact of Bersih 2.0 was its inability to mobilise groups to rally for the cause in cities all over Malaysia. If voters in Johor Baru, Kuantan, Malacca, Kuala Terengganu, Sibu and Sandakan could have seen or experienced the over-reaction of the police with their own eyes (or the eyes of their friends and relatives), the negative electoral backlash against the authorities would have been much more significant. 

Key 'what next' questions

Whether or not Bersih has the resources and capacity (or even if it wants) to expand its reach is unclear and will be one of the key 'what next' questions.

NONEFinally, the leaders of the opposition cannot afford to assume that Bersih 2.0 will be a game changer in the same way as the first Bersih march. They cannot assume that the negative publicity generated against the authorities will be sufficient to carry them to Putrajaya in the next election.
Focusing on the actions of the authorities during this rally detracts from the other more important objectives of finding suitable candidates and doing the necessary groundwork especially in the vulnerable Pakatan and BN areas. 

This rally was an important political event, especially among those who participated and the many more who supported the spirit of this movement, but it is not a game-changer. Real change and reform requires greater sacrifices than just a Saturday afternoon rally.

ONG KIAN MENG is pioneering a Master in Public Policy (MPP) at UCSI University. He will not quickly forget the feeling of being tear-gassed. He can be reached at

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