Malaysia′s anti-government protests - Why PM Najib is unlikely to quit | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 01.09.2015
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Malaysia's anti-government protests - Why PM Najib is unlikely to quit

Thousands took to streets of Kuala Lumpur over the weekend demanding the ouster of embattled Malaysian PM Najib Razak. But who are the demonstrators, and what are their chances of success? DW examines.

Several thousand protesters rallied in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, over the weekend to demand the resignation of PM Najib over a financial scandal. While police estimated the crowd size at 35,000, the organizers said more than 200,000 people came out in protest even after authorities blocked their website and banned yellow attire and the group's logo.

The large crowds of protesters, which camped on Kuala Lumpur's streets on the eve of the country's National Day, also denounced the PM over an unpopular new good and services tax, and demanded reform of an electoral system they claim favors the powerful ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has controlled the multi-racial Southeast Asian nation through coalition governments since independence from Britain in 1957.

Malaysia Premierminister Najib Abdul Razak

PM Najib denies any wrongdoing and has refused to heed the protesters' demands

The PM, whose approval ratings have fallen sharply over the past year, has come under growing pressure in recent months over claims that $700 million (633 million euros) were wired from the state-owned development company to his personal bank accounts. Najib, who set up the fund in 2009 that now faces debts totaling some $11 billion, serves as head of 1MDB's advisory board.

Growing discontent

But Najib denies any wrongdoing and has refused to heed the protesters' demands, calling them "shallow-minded." A few weeks earlier he sacked his deputy and four other ministers in a cabinet reshuffle, and replaced the attorney general in what many view as a bid to stifle questions over the graft scandal.

And while Malaysia's anti-corruption agency recently confirmed that the controversial transfers had taken place, it said they had come from an unspecific source in the Middle East, and not 1MDB. But the statements have not succeeded in silencing the PM's critics, with many analysts arguing that the weekend mass rally shows the extent of popular discontent with PM Najib.

Concerns over the political scandal have also partly contributed to Malaysia's currency losing nearly 20 percent of its value against the US dollar this year. The country's stock market has also been one of Asia's poorest performing in 2015.

Ethnic composition

But who are the protesters? The peaceful weekend demonstration was organized by Bersih - the Malay word for "clean" - a coalition of NGOs which had organized three previous mass demonstrations over the past decade in a bid to push for electoral reform.

But while the composition of the first two events was largely ethnic Malay - who make up roughly 60 percent of the country's 30 million inhabitants - William Case explains that the proportion of Malay protesters has since been steadily declining.

"Only 20-30 percent of last weekend's protest was Malay, with the opposition party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) this time refusing to participate. The protesters were thus overwhelmingly non-Malay, primarily middle-class ethnic Chinese," Case, who is a professor of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong, told DW.

Indeed, many argue that the decreasing number of Malay protesters is linked to the fact that the PAS decided not to participate in the rally - after having abandoned the opposition People's Alliance a few months ago. And a survey taken by the Merdeka Center in Kuala Lumpur found that 81 percent of the ethnic Chinese polled supported the protest while 70 percent of the Malays surveyed opposed it.

But why is that? "The ethnic Chinese, who make up a quarter of Malaysia's population, often feel they are discriminated against by the country's reverse affirmative action programs which provide special privileges to the majority ethnic Malay, in such areas as university entrance, for example," Murray Hiebert, a Malaysia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told DW.

Many of those who attended the protest rally responded to campaigning via social media over the past three weeks.

Proteste gegen die Regierung in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

A survey by the Merdeka Center found that 81 percent of the ethnic Chinese polled supported the protest while 70 percent of the Malays surveyed opposed it

The 'Mahathir factor'

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has played a key role in undermining public confidence in Najib in recent months, appeared at the rally with his wife, telling protesters that "people's power" was needed to remove Najib and return the rule of law. Observers say the involvement of the influential former PM, who led Malaysia for 22 years until 2003, was unprecedented and certainly boosted the spirits of the protesters.

But as Professor Case explains, his participation in the rally could have unwanted repercussions. "Najib and top UMNO leaders may be now be able to tar Mahathir as traitorous, having collaborated with the Chinese against a Malay prime minister and his government."

In addition, Case, who is also an expert in Southeast Asian politics, argues that the ruling party can now claim that Mahathir has behaved "hypocritically" after joining an assembly deemed illegal by the authorities. The former PM was seen as heavy-handed in his treatment of reformasi protests during his own tenure as prime minister.

Najib 'unlikely' to resign

So can the protesters succeed? Mahathir compared the latest Malaysia protests to an uprising in the Philippines in 1986 that topped former strongman Ferdinand Marcos, adding that "a street demonstration is our last option."

Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad ehemaliger Premierminister

Former PM Mahathir Mohamad (C) appeared at the rally, telling protesters that 'people's power' was needed to remove Najib and return the rule of law

But there is no history of "people's power" toppling leaders in Malaysia. And while the scandal facing 1MDB and the questions surrounding Najib's bank account have created a firestorm in the country, analysts agree that it is unlikely the protests will topple the PM, at least any time soon, unless the scandal and protests create a split in the ruling coalition.

"If the party's leadership concludes that Najib could be a serious liability in the next elections due in 2018, the party hierarchy would undoubtedly find a way to force the prime minister to resign like it did his predecessor Abdullah Badawi in 2008,"said Hiebert. For now, however, the ruling party's leadership seems for the most part to be siding with Najib, who currently faces no strong resistance in parliament.

Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling company, is therefore of the view that the short-term impact of the protests is bound to be limited given that the prime minister can only be removed via a no-confidence vote in parliament or through internal elections of the ruling party.

"It is hard to contemplate these being viable avenues because of the strong power of the executive branch of government and the fact that senior leaders in the ruling party usually remain loyal to the prime minister," Suffian told DW.

Moreover, he said, indicators show that current conditions "do not support the possibility of a 'people's power' revolt. Most likely, Malaysian voters will take their grievances peacefully up to the next general elections in 2018 and express themselves at the ballot box."

This is also why Case argues that, if anything, the latest mass protests will have strengthened the hand of the prime minister. "Because of the rally's ethnic composition, and the restraint shown by police, PM Najib can now show that the Malay community supports him. He can also claim that Malaysia is democratic, with his government respecting free assembly. There is no chance that this protest will force Najib to resign. On the contrary, Najib can be said to have had a 'good protest.'"

'Worst electoral laws'

Nonetheless, concerns remain about Bersih's main point of criticism: the country's electoral system which some view as giving an unfair advantage to the ruling coalition. During the 2013 elections, the ruling National Front had its poorest performance since independence after receiving only 48 percent of the popular vote, compared to 52 percent for the opposition led by now jailed Anwar Ibrahim.

But the ruling bloc was able to remain in power only because it won the most seats.

"Gerrymandering, designed by the government, is the main reason for this injustice," Vera Jasini Putri, Malaysia expert at the German Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation for Freedom, told DW.

The Electoral Integrity Project, a study of 127 countries by Harvard University and the University of Sydney, said early this year that Malaysia ranked 114th for election fairness and had the worst electoral laws and district boundaries of the nations surveyed.