Great strides in electoral reform – but risk of total reverse remains

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Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Amid political hopelessness, we must defend our hard-fought electoral reforms more vigorously, Danesh Prakash Chacko writes.

The watershed 2018 general election opened a set of new reforms for our maligned electoral system.

Despite electoral malpractices at almost every stage of the electoral process, the voter swing in 2018 and the presence of trained polling and counting agents overcame any attempt at rigging.

This paved the way for democratic reforms in the electoral scene to unfold.

It has been two years since we have reformed the Election Commission. What have we achieved so far and what are the obstacles that lie ahead?

Achievements

The historic change of government in 2018 swept away the then-disgraced leadership of the Election Commission.

The new commissioners, then-headed by Azhar Harun, came from a background of electoral activism and public service. This historic first step was required to herald badly needed reforms to our entire electoral system.

Tangible evidence of the impact of this leadership change was evident in the expansion of observer groups monitoring the by-election process.

The Election Commission invited Bersih, Engage and our advocacy group, Tindak Malaysia, to observe the conduct of by-elections since the last general election. It was through these invitations that Tindak Malaysia volunteers were able to see the significant improvements that the commission made in every by-election since then.

Notably, the commission improved accessibility for voters with disabilities. Starting with the Cameron Highlands by-election in 2019, it assigned voters with disabilities to the first polling stream, where accessibility is easiest. The commission then invested money to build proper pavements for the Kimanis (Sabah) polling centres in 2020 to improve accessibility to voting centres.

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The Election Commission stepped up its engagement process with electoral reform advocacy groups in various areas. For example, under Azhar Harun, the commission proactively engaged with Bersih, Engage and Tindak Malaysia in agreeing on certain parameters on the definition of bribery ahead of the Cameron Highlands by-election.

In September 2019, three commissioners made time to discuss with our group thorough reforms on the redrawing of constituency boundaries, the cleaning up of electoral rolls and the conduct of elections.

As for unresolved electoral boundary rigging, we are aware the Election Commission has no power in the current process to undo the damage of the past. The basis of electoral boundaries in Malaysia has been messed up due to problematic building (in the polling districts and localities). It is within the power of the commission to make the necessary fixes for the polling districts (sub-units of state constituencies) and localities (sub-units of polling districts).

With a receptive Election Commission in place, we have presented much evidence on how the building blocks of state and federal constituencies are erroneous in nature and proposed thorough improvements. We firmly believe that a fair redrawing of boundaries must produce polling districts of meaningful shapes instead of overloaded with too many voters. Our commissioners have acknowledged our research and incorporated them for future improvements.

In the conduct of elections, the Election Commission has been proactive in rectifying issues that various observer groups had raised. These issues range from improving accessibility for voters with disabilities to measures to increase the competency of election staff.

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The Election Commission has also provided voter cards ahead of by-elections to help voters to locate their polling stations and polling stream. This may make it redundant for political parties to offer a similar service on polling day through “hot booths” (which often are a thinly disguised form of illegal campaigning on polling day). And with the ‘new normal’ due to Covid-19, the voter cards issued for the Chini by-election showed suggested hours for voters to vote.

The receptive Election Commission also allowed our advocacy group to send our seasoned polling and counting agent volunteers to become election staff. This allowed our volunteers to see firsthand any teething issues for staff training, to break the line of any incompetence and to thrust the commission forward in quality training.

To secure these achievements, we worked closely with Bersih, Engage and the Electoral Reform Committee on all aspects of electoral reform. Our collaboration with the Election Commission has allowed us to make incremental improvements within the confines of the first-past-the-post system.

Meanwhile, our collaboration with fellow advocacy groups and the Electoral Reform Committee will facilitate a thorough revamp of the electoral system and its conduct in the future. Despite many breakthroughs, however, the recent change of government could throw a major spanner in the works.

Challenges ahead

While we have a reformed leadership in the Election Commission, we have encountered obstacles to electoral reform from the very same commission and the existing legal framework.

As we approach the commission to suggest our experienced volunteers to be part of the election staff, we notice that its bureaucracy still gives us headaches in issuing extremely short notices for training and uncertainty over confirmation of staff.

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Second, while the commission has been absorbing many of the stakeholders’ suggested improvements, these have been stymied in their implementation because of the many by-elections since the 2018 general election.

Third, the sudden change of government earlier this year raised alarm bells over whether our fairly independent Election Commission could remain unscathed. Azhar’s sudden resignation in June and that of another commissioner made many of us in the advocacy world worry about the future.

We may have moved two small steps forward but now risk a total reverse. Similarly, we are uncertain whether the current political leadership is keen to implement the thorough reforms by the Electoral Reform Committee. Our existing regulations disarm the Election Commission from enforcing basic campaign laws and allow empty houses to be filled by past voters.

What we can do

Electoral reforms remain low-hanging fruit in any democratisation process. We have made great strides over the last two years.

The Malaysian public can play a role by updating their voting address, reporting any irregularity to the Election Commission and supporting the work of advocacy groups like ours.

Amid political hopelessness, we must defend our hard-fought electoral reforms more vigorously.

Danesh Prakash Chacko, a research analyst at Jeffrey Sachs Center (Sunway University) and part of Tindak Malaysia’s leadership, focuses on electoral reform and its implementation

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