Most of the new laws have been criticized, however, as not going far enough. Speaking close to police lines earlier Saturday, protestor Fuzeani Fauzi said: “the only transparent thing about this government is their lack of sincerity and transparency.”
The reforms are thought to be part of a pre-election drive by the Barisan Nasional (National Front) government, which though it won the 2008 election, suffered its worst ever result. A resurgent opposition led by Anwar – who in January was acquitted in a controversial and many say politicized case in which he was accused of sodomizing a male aide – hopes to make further inroads into the BN monopoly on power, if not winning the election outright.
The Malaysian opposition feels that this outcome is impossible under the current electoral system, which, among other allegations, is said to include tens of thousands of false names on the electoral roll, including someone who if living would be more than 150 years-old. The election commission is regarded as tainted by the opposition, and on Friday, Malaysia’s online media revealed that the commission head failed to disclose past membership of the United National Malays Organization (UMNO), the main party in the BN government. Bersih head Ambiga Sreenevasan told a Friday press conference that “to be quite honest, I was shocked beyond belief on hearing that they might have been UMNO members.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Though not required under law until April 2013, an election could come as soon as June 5, with the government obliged to give only a week's notice under current laws, another complaint registered by Bersih.
Today’s clampdown could mean a delayed election, if it means a repeat drop in popularity for the government, which is due to launch a new minimum wage next week.
But if the government can blame protestors for pushing through police barriers today – apparently contravening pledges made by the Bersih leaders – then it might well work against the opposition come election time.
“It appears as if the opposition is trying to leap-frog over Bersih,” said Choong Pui Yee, analyst at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, who was present at the rally on Saturday, but she added that "the vast majority of the thousands of protestors were peaceful and the police over-reacted."
Simon Roughneen is a Southeast Asia-based writer.