Anwar Ibrahim called for rallies nationwide signalling the beginning of a ‘movement’ to protest alleged electoral fraud at the 5 May polls. Bersih has backed Anwar’s claims that foul play was at hand. In a press statement released on 5 May, 2013, Bersih (Clean/Movement for free and fair elections) alerted that preliminary observations show that there were many irregularities on polling day. In Sunday’s polls, videos and photos of alleged dubious voters flooded onto social media, along with photos of people showing that their indelible ink was easily washed off. The 13th general election concluded with hundreds of complaints of polling irregularities.
Bersih announced on the day after the polls that a people’s tribunal would be set up to probe electoral fraud. Given the extensive media attention on electoral irregularity during the election, the impact of Bersih needs consideration. The movement had a tremendous impact on the political establishment by encouraging active political participation by Malaysians, which transcended the usual ethnic and class divide. Pakatan Rakyat has benefited the most from the expression of dissent that Bersih catalysed. From the rallies to campaigns, it cannot be denied the complementary roles of Bersih movement and the Pakatan Rakyat. However, it is evident that the political impact of the Bersih movement outweighs the actual electoral results.
Since its formal establishment in 2006, the Bersih movement has proven that it is more than just a collection of people pushing for electoral reforms. Its popularity made it into an important social force in Malaysia. It has contributed to a greatly increased level of political awareness especially among young voters. Furthermore, campaigns such as “Jom 100” that encouraged citizens to vote, and “Jom Pantau” campaign that advocated citizens to volunteer as polling observers, triggered more active participation in the electoral process from the citizenry.
Bersih is widely considered a pioneer in advocating for electoral observers for the 13th general election. Although Bersih itself was not appointed by the Election Commission (EC) to be one of the electoral observer groups, the EC did invite selected domestic non-governmental organisations and observers from ASEAN to observe Malaysia’s 13th general elections.
Bersih has positively influenced the attitude of Malaysians towards elections regardless of their political inclination. Bersih-inspired gatherings took place simultaneously as a result of social media in various cities around the globe, giving the demand for free and fair (clean) elections international exposure. This further demonstrates that Malaysians are no longer political bystanders; rather, they now feel that they have more power to influence Malaysia’s directions. In the past, Malaysians were known to be apathetic and complacent about elections and national and state politics. However this has changed and it is undeniable that Bersih helped trigger the people’s engagement in politics.
Social movements such as Bersih however have a limited effect on society, and they cannot substitute for the state or political parties. Rather, a social movement and a political party working together is surely more effective at achieving political change.
Bersih has set up a people’s tribunal to investigate electoral fraud. Pakatan Rakyat has welcomed this proposal. The joint effort will have a greater effect at this juncture than if Bersih acted alone. However, the critical question remains whether Bersih’s concerted efforts will actually bring some, if any institutional reform to Malaysia’s electoral system and process.
Khoo Ying Hooi is a fellow in the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in University of Malaya. She is also a PhD candidate at University Putra Malaysia, where she examines the impact of the Bersih movement on political change in Malaysia.