KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s recent dramatic crackdown on public protest could force the prime minister to delay plans for an early election next year, after the events embittered the opposition and soured the public mood.
In November, tens of thousands of people turned out for two of Malaysia’s largest protests in a decade, dramatically highlighting their unhappiness over Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s glacial implementation of promised reforms.
Last week, when Abdullah jailed without trial five ethnic Indian activists behind one of the protests, he was acting in a political tradition of quickly stifling race-based disputes in a multiracial country, analysts said.
Polls are not due until 2009, but speculation has been rife that Abdullah plans to call a snap election early in 2008 in a move to foil opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim, who is barred by a corruption conviction from running for office until next April.
“I think there will be some sort of delay to the elections, which at this juncture are being discussed in March,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia specialist at Johns Hopkins University.
“The arrests are only part of the reason. The key additional factors are the impact of the protests within coalition parties and the public perception of Abdullah’s inability to resolve issues through existing channels.”
With a record majority and an efficient political machine, Abdullah’s ruling coalition runs no danger of being unseated.
But analysts said the crackdown also makes it tougher for him to deliver on promises to fight corruption, reduce inequality and foster wider political engagement, by strengthening the hands of conservative opponents within the coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957.
Though mainly peaceful, the rally over ethnic Indians’ claims of racial discrimination stirred deep unease in the government, and among many ordinary citizens.
Race and religion are sensitive issues in Malaysia, where politically dominant ethnic Malay Muslims form about 60 percent of a population of roughly 26 million, while the ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities include Hindus, Buddhists and Christians.
In 2001, five people were killed and 37 wounded in riots between ethnic Malays and Indians that began after an Indian kicked over a chair at a Malay wedding. In 1969, hundreds were killed in rioting between Malays and ethnic Chinese.
But public protests are alien to Malaysia’s political culture, and November’s events are unlikely to trigger fresh violence, political analyst Chandra Muzaffar said.
“If you look at the whole history of this country, it’s been relatively peaceful and stable,” Muzaffar told Reuters.
“The political culture that has evolved as a result of that stability has got an almost in-built aversion towards demonstrations and disruptions, and the people will not support street demonstrations.”
Results of a nationwide opinion poll early in December back that view. Demonstrations were not an acceptable way of voicing one’s views, said 52 percent of a group of 861 people questioned by the Merdeka Centre, in the Malaysian capital.
Fifty-nine percent felt that street protests were not an effective way of attaining participants’ objectives, 82 percent felt they hurt business activity, 80 percent said they tarnished Malaysia’s image and 73 percent said they hit the economy.
The government should use all the legal means it can to stop individuals and groups from threatening racial harmony, 73 percent of the respondents said.
Officials say anyone who threatens law and order will face the same tough laws used to hold the Indian leaders for two years without trial, but Abdullah has said he will consider setting up a special department to tackle the problems of non-Muslims.
His government also plans to set up panels of mediators nationwide, drawn from civil servants and neighbourhood watch officials, to stop race disputes from festering.
“This concern with ethnic relations is the major challenge in this country and it will remain so for ever,” Muzaffar said.