If real electoral reforms are not carried out, the Election Commission will be seen as doing nothing but Umno’s bidding, says WH Cheng.
Barisan Nasional leaders, particularly from Umno, and top officials of the Election Commission have always wondered why many still do not trust the commission. Why view the electoral body and its functions with much suspicion?
The latest redelineation plan by the commission has heightened this atmosphere of mistrust, with both sides of the political divide voicing their concerns on the proposals.
Opposition parties from Pakatan Harapan and PSM, and BN’s predominantly Chinese component parties — the MCA, Gerakan, the SUPP and the LDP – have criticised the commission’s proposal for promoting racial polarisation.
The complaints and objections range from proposing constituencies that are overly Malay and overly Chinese, widening the disparities in the number of voters between constituencies, a reduction of mixed race composition seats, and confusion among voters over voting districts.
The main grouse of the critics is that opposition parties and the BN’s “Chinese-based component parties” would be wiped out in GE14 and a more dominant Umno-based government would emerge after GE14.
The proposed redelineation could see 12 parliamentary and 34 state constituencies in the peninsula undergo a name change while in East Malaysia the commission has proposed 13 new state constituencies for Sabah, bringing the total number of state seats in Sabah to 73.
In response, Election Commission officials were quick to deny claims of unfair redrawing of electoral boundaries, saying that the commission was exercising its roles and responsibilities as stated in the Federal Constitution.
Is the Election Commission independent?
The independence of the commssion has been continuously questioned when the number of uneven constituencies has been increasing while the BN coalition has retained its power in Putrajaya without fail.
But a sudden wave of change swept through in 2008, causing Umno’s coalition partners the MCA, Gerakan, the MIC, the SUPP and the PPP to lose most of their seats while Umno continues to remain dominant in numbers.
The BN has since lost its two-thirds majority when the opposition parties made tremendous gains nationwide following that shift in voter sentiment.
But history has proven that whenever there is a redelineation exercise, the BN is sure to win comfortably.
In 1999, when Malay votes were split following the Anwar Ibrahim incident and Chinese votes were solidly with BN, a redelineation was carried out to create more seats with mixed race to balance out the Malay sentiment. This kept BN in power, with MCA and Gerakan making sound gains at that time.
However, the tide turned in 2008 when these seats with mixed race composition swung to the opposition side following an increasing show of racial and religious extremism on Umno’s part.
So, what can justify claims that the Election Commission is not an independent institution? Well, the fact is that the commission is an institution under the direct purview of the Prime Minister’s Department, which is headed by the prime minister himself, who is also BN chairman and Umno president.
The staffing of the commission from the top officials to the operations personnel is also determined by the Public Service Department , which also comes under the Prime Minister’s Department.
There is no hard evidence to demonstrate the independence of the Election Commission in running the past general elections, and, of course, the so-called advantage enjoyed by the BN in previous redelineation exercises only served to reinforce suspicions.
To affirm the independence of the Election Commission, the electoral body will need to be put under the direct purview of parliament, to be scrutinised regularly by a parliamentary select committee on electoral administration. Commission officials should also be recommended and appointed by parliament.
No oversight on Election Commission
The Election Commission conducts redelineation exercises regularly without fail “in accordance with the Federal Constitution” and presents its proposal to the cabinet for review and approval before it is tabled in parliament for voting.
The major concern here is, who oversees and scrutinises whatever that is being carried out by the commission? The Prime Minister’s Department or the cabinet?
Yes, BN leaders may say that it is either one of these two. But are these two fit to oversee and scrutinise the Election Commission? These two outfits are part of the government headed by the leader of the ruling BN, who happens to be the president of Umno, the dominant party in BN.
Why is there such a big disparity in the number of voters between rural and urban seats? Why should voters be moved from one constituency to another? People are demanding that the commission justify its actions in the redelineation exercise. But will we get all the answers?
The fear is that the Election Commission or the BN will use the Official Secrets Act (OSA) against those who persist in questioning and challenging it. There is no independent oversight committee at all to oversee and scrutinise the various activities of the commission to ensure it truly works in accordance with the Federal Constitution.
Until real electoral reforms are carried out, the Election Commission will be seen as doing nothing but Umno’s bidding. Our distrust will continue to haunt it.