Hope for a free and fair 13th general election?

In December 2011, Aliran made submissions to the Parliamentary Select Committee on electoral reforms when it visited Penang as part of its nationwide road-show to gather public input. Henry Loh reports on what transpired.

Aliran exco members make submissions to the Parliamentary Select Committee. Photograph: Soon Chuan Yean/Aliran

The Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reforms (PSC) held their public meeting in Penang over two days, 15-16 December 2011.

The PSC on electoral reforms was formed soon after the 9 July 2011 Bersih 2.0 rally held in Kuala Lumpur. The PSC was visiting all the major towns and cities in Malaysia to allow the public to provide their views and make proposals on electoral reforms. The government of the day seems to have finally recognised that the rakyat are fed-up with the current state of the electoral system. It is indeed a clear demonstration of the power of the rakyat that the PSC was formed and that positive proposals for changes are being considered for implementation.

The following political parties made presentations to the PSC: Pas, DAP, PKR, PSM, Partai Cinta Malaysia (PCM), and Kita. The NGOs that made presentations included Aliran, the Council of Datuks Malaysia and Bersih 2.0.

Although the country has gone through 12 general elections since independence in 1957, the feedback from NGOs, political parties and members of civil society to the PSC indicate very clearly that there is much that needs to be done to further improve the current electoral system and policies.

The PSC seems to be a good first step in the right direction though it remains to be seen how committed and genuine they are to ensuring that the proposals that they have received are tabled in parliament for debate (if required by law) and, if accepted by the majority, duly legislated and sanctioned. In the instances where positive changes can be made without the need to amend any existing laws or legislation, the Election Commission should take the cue from the feedback given and duly implement the changes.

Initial changes

Toward this end the Commission had on 19 December 2011 accepted the PSC proposal for five changes summarised as follows:

Use of indelible ink: Voters will have their fingers marked with ink before casting their vote to prevent multiple voting.

Early voting: Only military personnel and their spouses, members of the General Operations Force and their spouses and the Police Force will vote two to three days earlier. Only those based away from polling stations, including Commission personnel, can apply to be postal voters.

Objection period: The Commission is doing away with the one-hour objection period for candidates. Unhappy candidates can seek legal recourse. Candidates cannot pull out once their nominations are accepted.

Electoral rolls: These will be displayed every quarter for two weeks instead of the current one week and the rolls will be constantly updated.

Disabled voters: They may be accompanied by a guardian or someone they trust. Now only relatives are allowed to help them mark ballots (The Star, 20 December 2011).

PSC chairperson Datuk Seri Dr. Maximus Ongkili also announced that the committee was preparing 10 new proposals on electoral changes to be tabled in Parliament in March 2012. These proposals are in addition to the 10 proposals that had already been tabled in Parliament earlier and accepted on 1 December 2011.

Whilst these proposed changes are seen as positive steps taken to improve the electoral system, there is still very much that needs to be done if we hope to have free and fair elections.

Redelineation of constituencies

One major grouse that requires urgent attention is the need for a fairer re-delineation of the boundaries of existing state and parliamentary constituencies. The Commission must seriously address the oft-repeated, numerous accusations of gerrymandering. For instance at the sitting of the PSC in Penang, the Bayan Baru PSM chairman provided a concrete example of two constituencies sharing a boundary in the state of Sarawak in which one constituency X had 5000 voters whilst another Y had 20000 voters. He illustrated that in such a situation the votes for each constituency had differing weightage and significance. In simple mathematical terms the vote in constituency X was four times more valuable than that of constituency Y.

To further illustrate the point assuming there are only two candidates vying for the seat in each constituency and that voter turnout (for discussion purposes) is 100 per cent, the candidates in X needs to convince only 2501 voters to vote for him or her but the candidates in Y has to convince 10001 voters to vote for him and her. Upon winning the election the candidates are accorded equal status as members of parliament or state assembly members. Clearly a fairer distribution of the voters in both constituency X and Y is to have about 12500 voters in each constituency. I

The current delineation of constituencies must be reviewed and duly amended so that the number of voters in each constituency is more proportionate and not lopsided.

Anti-party hopping

A proposal was also made by the PCM representative that there be laws enacted to disallow elected representatives from joining another party if they were elected into office on a different party ticket e.g. a winning candidate who quits DAP to join MCA or Umno to join Pas. This is to address the issue of party hopping: the switching of parties by elected representatives could topple a duly elected if that government only had a small majority.

The view held here is that if a person was to run and get elected into office on a party ticket, the votes obtained by that winning candidate has much to do with the party that he/she is representing. Remember what took place in the state of Perak, where a representative who was voted in on a DAP ticket chose to resign from the party to become an Independent and then declare her allegiance to the Barisan Nasional faction in the state assembly. This led to the Pakatan state government being forced to hand over power to the BN..

To ensure that the voters intentions are recognised and respected, the proposal is that any elected representative who resigns from a party should also resign from his/her seat and a fresh by-election be held. Some may argue that such a proposal goes against the principle of freedom of association as provided for in the Federal Constitution. The response to this is that the elected representative is free to join whichever political party s/he wishes, the only condition is that s/he should resign and face a fresh by-election to determine whether s/he was voted in based on her/his own personality or the party platform.

Role and responsibilities of a caretaker government

The EC should monitor closely the activities of a caretaker government to ensure that there is no misuse of government machinery, services and funds during elections. Aliran exco members who appeared before the PSC provided detailed recommendations on the code of conduct that ought to be adhered to by a caretaker government.

The four don’ts recommended by Aliran are:

No major policy decisions – governments should avoid making major policy decisions that are likely to influence voters;

No significant new appointments – what needs to be considered is not just the importance of the position but also whether the appointment is likely to be controversial and an issue in the election campaign

No major new contracts – governments should avoid entering into major contracts or undertakings during the caretaker period.

No use of government resources to support the ruling party – a caretaker government should not use its resources or position to support the ruling party.

The above recommendations are important and necessary because of the experiences gained from past elections. P Ramakrishnan, the immediate past Aliran president, informed the PSC that for the Ijok by-election the government of the day spent RM70-100m within the campaign period. He quipped 10 years of development was packed into the 10-day campaign period.

Other anecdotes such as the resurfacing of damaged roads, the erection of new street lighting, the handing out of bonuses to government employees and special tax incentives just before elections are common knowledge to most Malaysians. Government funds and resources have been used and even abused during campaign periods and this should be duly checked.

Conclusion

The PSC on electoral reforms and ultimately the Election Commission have a lot of work at hand if they are indeed serious and committed to creating an atmosphere in which free and fair elections can be held.

Many issues need to be tackled and dealt with. The role of the media in particular the mainstream media should be carefully monitored during the campaign period. It is not uncommon that any negative news concerning the opposition is highlighted but not the positive news. TV and radio air time is not apportioned fairly between the ruling party and the opposition.

The announcement as to when elections are to be held is a closely guarded secret known only to the Prime Minister. This is to give the ruling party an advantage over the opposition and hopefully catch them off-guard and unprepared when the announcement is made. A proposal was made for the election date to be fixed so as to ensure that all parties do not have to waste time and play the guessing game.

The campaign period for a general election is now as short as 10 days. This is not fair to the opposition as they have limited access to the official and mainstream media. The proposal is that there should be a minimum campaign period of at least 21 days.

It is indeed very appropriate that TIME magazine has named “the Protester” as its person of the year for 2011. Whilst the magazine focused on the protesters in Tunisia, Egypt , Bahrain, Libya and the Occupy Wall Street movement, Marina Mahathir through her musings column in The Star chose to include the protesters of Bersih 2.0 as also deserving of the award.

Yes, the government of the day should really sit up and take notice of what is going on. The rakyat want free and fair elections and the Election Commission should play its role effectively in ensuring that it happens.

Henry Loh is an Aliran executive committee member.

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