Bersih 3.0 and political change in Malaysia

Hornbill Unleashed

Khoo Ying Hooi
The announcement by Bersih 2.0 that it will hold yet another rally to demand for electoral reforms has triggered a mixed reaction. The steering committee has set April 28 as the date for a third rally for clean and fair elections as an immediate response to their frustrations over the electoral reforms report by the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) which it deems has failed to address fundamental electoral issues.

This time, the steering committee has opted for a sit-in protest at Dataran Merdeka due to its historical significance to the people’s struggle for independence. The protest, Bersih 3.0 Duduk Bantah will be carried out both nationwide and worldwide as an expression of the disappointment over the authorities’ alleged lack of commitment towards electoral reforms.
Civil society has been deployed as a key variable in explaining the democratic political change, particularly in developing countries. The growing political prominence of civil society stimulated a great deal of thoughts about its role in the Malaysian politics. The bigger issue that we are facing now is whether the movement itself can actually make a change in Malaysia.
Seeing civil society as a positive force for the development of democracy and good governance, many believe that strengthening civil society through means such as the movement by Bersih 3.0 will in return strengthen democracy. However, we should not forget that civil society organisations could also weaken and fragment political parties and government institutions. There are serious possibilities for either one to happen in the context of Malaysia.

Some of the factors include the stage of political development, political opportunity and constraints, the size and resource base of the civil society organisations themselves, as well as the quality of their leadership.
I share the view that, with the exception of a complete breakdown of norms, civil society organisations on their own have a limited effect and cannot substitute for the state or political parties. But on the other hand, I believe that in the contemporary situation of Malaysia, political parties and the government are both depending on the direction taken by civil society organisations. The issue at hand is to discover what sort of working relationship could transpire between them.

Civil society’s potential for strengthening democracy, will only be realised if there are strong and accountable electoral systems, party systems and legislative-executive arrangements. A strong civil society, and the ‘social capital’ embedded in its many associations, is often thought of as necessary to a strong democracy, and even capable of transforming an authoritarian regime into a democratic one. But the relationship is never simple.

Civil society organisations though are not a sure recipe for bringing about democracy, but today they seem necessary to accompany the growth of democracy and to be part of any political system.

Bersih 3.0 is possibly the last rally before the 13th general election. It could serve as the key determinant for the fate of our country. The much talked about election is the most crucial in the nation’s history and most people have woken up to the fact that they have been taking things for granted. The turnout for the sit-in protest on April 28 will be a time of reflection for all Malaysians on the kind of legacy and future they want for the next generation.

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