In preparation for the inevitable Sarawak state election, the CSO Platform for Reform (Sarawak chapter) has come up with a few recommendations on how elections can be conducted safely, notwithstanding the Covid pandemic.
While we are deeply concerned with the current spike of positive cases from variants of concern in Malaysia (to date, there are 93 cases of Delta variants discovered in Sarawak), we are equally concerned that the mandate of the Sarawak State Legislative Assembly has expired, albeit extended by the 2021 emergency provisions.
As we know, the Sarawak state election must be held within 60 days of the lifting of the emergency that was scheduled to end on 1 August.
As responsible civil society organisations, we make the following recommendations to Prime Minister Mahiaddin Yasin, Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg and the chairman of the Election Commission:
Postal voting should be made available to all overseas voters, including Malaysians who live and work in the neighbouring regions of Singapore, Brunei, Kalimantan, Indonesia and southern Thailand. This is on top of the existing categories of domestic postal voters such as those from the nine governmental agencies, the media, police and other military personnel unable to vote on advance voting day as well as election workers or commissioners of the Election Commission who are on duty on polling day.
Expand categories of voters
Expand the categories of voters who can vote in advance beyond the police and military personnel and their spouses to ‘out-of-region’ voters, meaning those who live and work in states outside of where they are currently registered as a voter. This will immediately enfranchise Sarawakians who live across the South China Sea in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and vice versa.
Advance voting centres can be set up in each state of Malaysia and those who qualify must pre-register themselves to be on the advance voting roll much like the police and military. They will then be able to walk into any of these advance voting stations on advance voting day to cast their votes in person and have their votes counted towards the total votes of the constituency they are registered with. The counting and tallying can be done at a certain time on polling day itself.
As for mobile voting, the Election Commission can use this method for the infirm, disabled and aged voters living in nursing and care homes as well as those serving quarantine orders or stay-at-home orders due to the Covid pandemic. This can be part of the advance voting and their votes are counted towards the total votes of the constituency they are registered with on polling day.
Other than the above alternatives or special voting arrangements, a reform necessary in the long term might also include electronic voting.
Other measures to reduce the movement or presence of voters in polling stations over a given time can be:
- Extending polling day to two days (since the Election Commission is already reducing the number of maximum voters in each voting channel by half) to spread out the voters. The campaigning period is a key part of an election. These are our recommendations to keep the public safe without compromising the delivery by contesting parties and candidates of their election manifestos and policies on current issues to voters
- Televise party leaders’ debates and allocate equal TV and radio airtime for all contesting candidates in their various constituencies. The Election Commission can use its powers under the Constitution to arrange equal air time over publicly owned RTM and TV Sarawak for this purpose
- Longer campaigning period (a minimum of 21 days). This is to allow voters more time to receive information and make an informed decision and for overseas voters to receive their postal ballots in time
Other equally pertinent reforms that must be implemented are automatic voter registration and Undi18 [a reduction of the minimum voting age to 18]. This will immediately enfranchise 5.6 million mainly young Malaysians and recognise their constitutional right to vote.
The vaccination programme in Sarawak is happening at a commendable rate and the state is on track towards achieving herd immunity by mid-August this year. However, the rate and status of vaccination should not be used as the sole indicator for the chief minister to call for the state election. The five-year mandate of the Sarawak Legislative Assembly has technically expired; and parliamentary democracy and the constitution require that a fresh mandate be obtained from voters in the state to determine their representatives, including the state government for the next five years.
We also demand that Election Commission reveal their plans and strategies to make the Sarawak state election safe and inclusive. We are hopeful that these plans will involve adopting some of these recommended special voting arrangements. The voters and stakeholders of the election need to be informed of these changes and plans so that they can exercise their voting rights accordingly, thus ensuring participation by the voters.
As for the chief minister of Sarawak, the narrative and calls for state autonomy and/or devolution of powers ring hollow if he and his cabinet do not demand that the Election Commission implement reforms to enfranchise Sarawakian voters who live out of the state.
- 1. Persatuan Pemangkin Daya Masyarakat (Rose)
2. Undi Sarawak
4. Terabai Kenyalang Heritage Association of Sarawak (TKHAS)
5. Sarawak Women for Women Society (SWWS)
6. Persatuan Pemangkin Kesedaran Sosial
7. Lawyer Kamek 4 Change (LK4C)
8. Purplelily Social Association Kuching
9. Persatuan Anak Istimewa Sarawak (Perais)
10. Sarawak Association for People’s Aspiration (Sapa)
11. Sarawak Aids Concern Society (SACS)
12. Ikram Sarawak
13. Abim Sarawak
14. Save Rivers
15. Dayak Think Tank Association Sarawak (DTTAS)