Malaysia GE13: Serious Concerns About May 5th Election Require Sincere Investigation and Reform

 

Malaysia GE13: Serious Concerns Require Investigation and Reform

 

The 5th May 2012 general election in Malaysia, the country’s 13th, had an encouraging record turnout of 80 percent of eligible voters exercising their franchise and the election day processes of polling and counting were generally peaceful. But taking both of those things into account, the healthy turnout and relatively calm polling day, does not override the fact that the electoral process was marred by allegations of fraud, vote-buying, manipulation of the voter’s registry and violence and intimidation of voters. Despite the Surahanjaya Pilihan Raya’s (SPR) dismissal of the alleged frauds and violence having any significant effect on the outcome of the elections, there remain worrying trends, which need to be addressed in the interest of the country and its people.

 

Throughout the electoral process, one dominant issue was the inefficient voters’ registry with a multitude of allegations regarding enumeration of fake (phantom) voters, repeated names, removal of names of genuine voters’ and also “illegal” registration of migrant labourers from different parts of Asia. In fact, on Election Day a number of cases of detection of ‘migrant voters’ from different parts of Asia has cast some doubts on the integrity of the process. The SPR may need to explain the process of registration of migrants as voters’ and why their names were not deleted even if it turns out to simply be an honest mistake.

 

At the same time however, ANFREL is certainly concerned at the way vigilante groups were set up by some supporters of political parties and civil society organisations to try and trace “foreign nationals” and prevent them from voting. Several cases from across the country of the interception of supposed “non-Malaysian migrants” at polling stations by self-styled vigilante groups had the potential of sparking unrest amongst supporters of the contesting political parties. Such trends do not bode well for the growth of free and justifiable electoral practices in Malaysia and must be discouraged and prevented. No social groups or organisations should be taking the law into their own hands when the law and order machinery in the country can and should be doing it themselves. If migrant workers from other countries have been fraudulently registered as voters’ then it is the duty of the SPR in collaboration with other state agencies to take appropriate action and de-register the migrants from the voter list. Under no circumstances should migrants be abused or assaulted due to their ethnicity, as was the case in a number of areas on the polling day.

 

To avoid such situations, and ameliorate several of the other issues mentioned, it is recommended that the SPR should not be averse to setting up a more comprehensive Voter’s Registration Audit (VRA) involving a diverse swath of stakeholders and opposition groups. In fact, there have long been complaints by opposition parties to clean up the voter’s list in order to have a clean and credible election. It is hoped that the authorities concerned respond to these voter list problems and take the proper follow-up actions on the judicial review petitions filed by a number of opposition MPs to compel the election management body to clean up the electoral roll.

 

The traditional media’s election coverage, before, during, and after the election, was troublingly one-sided. Partisan coverage that was consistently and transparently favorable to Barisan Nasional (BN) on broadcast media and in major newspapers seriously prevented the creation of a level playing field for the election. Such censorship and control over the media inhibits the development of a fair election system and robs all Malaysians of the necessary knowledge and fair coverage they are entitled to in order to be better-informed voters.

 

With traditional media dominated by the ruling coalition, cyber attacks/interference on alternative media outlets that rely so heavily on their Internet presence were particularly damaging to the principles of a free press and freedom of expression in the country.  Authorities, including the SPR, must investigate those responsible in cyber attacks against news media reporting opposition campaigns, which greatly impinged freedom of expression and functioning of a free press during the entire pre-election period beginning early in 2012.

 

The ruling coalition’s abuse of their incumbency to deliver populist programs aimed at specific constituencies and motivated by the coming elections was another factor in unfairly tilting the playing field in their favor. While precise estimates of the money spent cannot be determined, the final total is undoubtedly significant. Whether at the federal or state level, this kind of blurring of the line between government programs and campaign activities is an abuse of public resources. In several clear examples, there was seemingly no distinction between campaign advertising and government public information campaigns. This kind of spending is not only an abuse of the taxpayer’s money and unfair to those parties out of power, it can also distort the pursuit of good governance and sound policy making.

 

Violence has been at an all time high. According to a Freedom House report, the police recorded over 2,000 attacks since the parliament was dissolved on April 3rd. The nature of the violence reported ranges from physical attacks on persons, arson, destruction of property, bombings and various other incidents of threats and intimidation to voters. All incidents certainly deserve proper investigation and explanation from the election commission as otherwise, the outcome of the elections and the way the electoral process was managed will continue to raise doubts in people’s minds, a development that certainly will not augur well for future elections and the strengthening of democracy in Malaysia.

 

The reports that were received from different states and electoral constituencies regarding the use of indelible ink, especially the variations in quality provides sufficient room to question the process of procurement of the ink and whether the cases of easy removal of the ink from the finger led to any form of manipulation of the votes. The election management body has been questioned a number of times on its preparedness on application of indelible ink as this was the first time the ink was used.  A total of 1,069 complaints regarding easy removal of the indelible ink was received by the election commission.

 

The number of independent election observers was inadequate considering that there were a large number of electoral constituencies with as many as 8,245 polling stations. The fact that most of the accredited domestic election observers were bound by strict rules preventing them from publishing their findings, the absence of independent observers was truly felt. There were laudable attempts made by civil society groups under the banner of ‘Pemantau Pilihan Raya’ led by Bersih to monitor the elections, but SPR imposed restrictions barring Pemantau direct access to information and entry to polling stations made it difficult to make for a completely impartial assessment and documentation of the electoral process before and on the polling day. The arrest of seven Pemantau observers on the election day for unknown reasons further added to the inadequacies in the observation process.

 

All irregularities mentioned here deserve independent, robust and timely investigation by the SPR and relevant state agencies. The election commission must thoroughly investigate all the complaints recorded so far and respond to the allegations made by various groups and provide sufficient proof that the alleged incidents mentioned above did not disturb the integrity and the credibility of the outcome of the election.

 

While the BN and its supporters are convinced that the elections were legitimate, the opposition and members of the Civil Society, particularly the Pemantau from the Bersih Coalition have expressed serious reservations and are contemplating on challenging the outcome. The post election climate so far has been peaceful with reports of no major untoward incidents, but given that the opposition and Civil Society groups are demanding explanations from the election commission regarding violations and alleged manipulation, the latter must provide some clarification to the people and can begin to do so by proceeding with a professional investigation of the complaints filed by various sources. Doing so will help make significant progress towards restoring the public trust.

 

Moreover, the government should guarantee the freedom of those wishing to express their thoughts about the elections via peaceful means. Without greater transparency and clarification into the issues raised, the SPR’s professionalism will be called into question. On the other hand, a proactive and effective response to complaints by those in power can keep society from becoming more div
ided and will help reverse any further deterioration of public trust of the electoral results and the democratic process itself.

 


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