Today Asia Times has an excellent overview of the political fallout from this past weekend’s large protest in Kuala Lumpur, which focused on reforming election laws. The turnout, as Asia Times noted, was far higher than the government expected (though figures of size were of course debated). What’s more, the fact that it was largely peaceful, and then resulted at the end of the protest in the use of excessive force by police against demonstrators, will cut into the image of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak as a reformer, an image he has worked hard to cultivate in the past two years, and which is critical to his election prospects as the prime minister is far more popular personally than his party is. Any serious dents in Najib’s popularity, thus, will be critical to the election, since his party is unlikely to be able to win over voters who have not made up their mind; only Najib’s personal attractiveness seems to be able to win these voters back from the opposition. Now, it appears Najib is likely to delay new elections until at least the summer, to try to give himself time to reburnish his reputation.
Though Najib has instituted some important reforms, including attempting to change the national economic model and changing the Internal Security Act, his problem will remain that, because he is linked to the ruling party —and its election irregularities, its pork, its control of the print media, and its still-smoldering scandal involving graft in defense contracting—he is never going to seem as reformist as the opposition, and he may not even have good control of his own forces. Meanwhile, in order to win the election Najib will also have to continue to appeal to the hard-core ethnic Malay base, which disdains many of his proposed reforms, and which has much to lose from real changes in the affirmative action programs.
As Asia Times and other reports noted, the protests last weekend drew sizable numbers of young Malaysians, and it also attracted a broad range of protesters including Malays, Chinese, and Indians. These young people will eventually be the future of Malaysian politics, and even if the ruling coalition holds it together to win again in the upcoming election, the long-term trends do not look favorable for the United Malays National Organisation and its allies.