Why Bersih 5 had a lower turnout ― did Dr M play a role?

An aerial view of the Bersih 5 rally in Kuala Lumpur November 19, 2016, as seen from Masjid Jamek LRT station. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
An aerial view of the Bersih 5 rally in Kuala Lumpur November 19, 2016, as seen from Masjid Jamek LRT station. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

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KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 24 ― Compared to the sea of yellow in Malaysia’s capital city last year, the Bersih 5 rally last Saturday appeared to have less participants that at least one federal minister has pinned on the inclusion of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Political analysts contacted by Malay Mail Online however believe the relative dip in numbers had less to do with the controversial former prime minister, and more to do with creeping scepticism towards street demonstrations as a trigger for change.

“No, it is more the sense of frustration/ futility/ inability to effect change or reform at all through such rallies,” Dr Oh Ei Sun from Nanyang Technological University said in a text message.

“Same thing will happen next election. Vote for what?” he added.

The adjunct senior fellow at the Singapore university's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies also predicted that the 14th general election, due by 2018, may also see a lower turnout.

He noted several factors that may discourage voters from showing up, such as the popular vote to the Opposition in Election 2013 but which still saw them failing to take over Putrajaya; and what he believed to be solid support from the rural Malays behind the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and overtures to its mainstay party Umno by Islamist Opposition party, PAS.

Greg Lopez, a fellow at Australia's Murdoch University's Asia Research Centre, said the smaller participation for the Bersih 5 rally had very little to do with Dr Mahathir, but was instead reflective of Malaysians' nature as “contingent democrats” who only use democracy to advance their interests rather than being firm believers in democratic principles.

Many may have felt that joining this rally would not lead to any significant changes, he said.

“No. Mahathir is not the reason that the number of participants for Bersih 5 dropped. The numbers were low because there was no pressing issues this time around (all had already been raised before: corruption, electoral reforms, 1MDB, etc.),” the lecturer at the Murdoch University Executive Education Centre said in an email.

“With no new issues, and no opportunities for change (e.g. elections) in the short term, many decided it was not worth the effort,” he added.

Both Oh and Lopez pointed to the heavy publicity of a counter rally by the rival Red Shirts movement ― led by Sungai Besar Umno division chief Datuk Seri Jamal Yunos ― as further discouraging Malaysians from joining in this year’s Bersih rally, with the former also citing the prospects of harassment and arrests.

Singapore's Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute deputy director Ooi Kee Beng said attributing Dr Mahathir's participation in the Bersih 5 rally for the lower turnout would be neglecting the complexity of the situation.

“I am sure there was fear among some because of what the Red Shirts were doing. The arrest of Jamal Yunos by the police was a wise move, even if done late in the day (or night). But the fear would have discouraged many from making an appearance,” he said in an email.

But Ooi said the Bersih 5 rally turnout was “not all that low” and the plan to simply express a common purpose and not have a confrontation with either the police or the Red Shirts was achieved.

He noted that barricades erected by police also resulted in many giving up and returning home after a short march.

“Counting how many participated in a Bersih march is not an easy matter. There are always groups in the fringes whom one does not count.

“It is more about whether a rally is significantly large or not. In this case, it was important that Malay participation was high, which it was,” he said.

Ooi highlighted the participation of the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) chaired by Dr Mahathir in the Bersih 5 rally in “such an overt and frontline fashion” as an interesting aspect.

He added that PPBM has the potential to spark radical change required for the federal opposition to move forward to better resonate with the Malay community.

As for voter participation in the next general election, it will depend on the federal opposition’s ability to mount a concerted front for the elections, he said.

Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Salleh Said Keruak had last Saturday claimed that Dr Mahathir's and his associates' joining of the Bersih 5 rally had resulted in a purported drop of nearly 97 per cent in turnout, instead of achieving what he said PPBM was meant to do ― bring in new Malay supporters for the federal opposition and the rally.

Salleh claimed that this was due to Malays seeing through Dr Mahathir’s alleged selfish agenda for PPBM and ethnic Chinese purportedly being disgusted at the former prime minister’s involvement in the rally.

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