Recent police clashes with election-reform protesters in Malaysia have dented premier Najib Razak’s reform credentials and may force him to push back elections, analysts say. Najib was widely expected to set a June date for what is predicted to be a close battle between his ruling coalition and the opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim, but observers say Saturday’s protest may have changed his thinking. Tens of thousands took to the streets of the capital Kuala Lumpur to demand clean elections, defying government curbs on the rally. Angry demonstrators broke through barricades and clashed with police, who fired tear gas and chemical-laced water on crowds and arrested 512 people. All have since been released. Analysts say the events may have tarnished Najib’s efforts to win votes by pledging to loosen the long-ruling coalition’s authoritarianism.
“(Najib) will definitely push back elections to the latter part of the year or even to next year,” said Khoo Kay Peng, an independent political analyst. Khoo said the curbs on the rally and the police reaction may jeopardise Najib’s standing among more liberal voters. “If Najib holds elections in June, his component parties’ and his own party’s urban seats will be wiped out,” Khoo said.
Activists and the opposition say Malaysia’s electoral system is riddled with fraud and pro-government bias, accusing Najib of foot-dragging on reforms. He denies the allegations. Portraying himself as a reformer, Najib has criss-crossed the country, drumming up support in key constituencies and indicating polls were near. The ruling coalition he now heads has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957 but had its worst-ever showing in 2008 elections, raising the spectre of the coalition finally losing power.