By Kee Thuan Chye
We often hear of electoral fraud and unfair election practices but what do they really mean? What forms does electoral fraud usually take? What constitute unfair practices and how have they surfaced?
Beyond that, what are the measures that need to be taken to ensure that Malaysian elections are free and fair so that this vital aspect of our democracy is truly well-served and our vote for the candidate or party we support is not made a mockery of?
A new book called Democracy at Stake?: Examining 16 By-elections in Malaysia, 2008-2011, published by Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, answers our questions and collates our concerns into a handy and comprehensive compact.
Edited by Wong Chin Huat and Soon Li Tsin, it analyses the 16 by-elections that have been held since the 12th general election according to such relevant categories as how free, fair and clean they were; the freedom and quality of the campaigning; the political parties’ access to media; corrupt practices that were perpetrated; how impartial or otherwise the public institutions were; the amount of campaign money spent; the electoral roll; and the polling process.
Wong, who is in my opinion one of the sharpest political analysts we have, sets the standard for the conduct of elections in his introductory article.
Well-researched and replete with references from many documented sources, it explains why electoral fraud is wrong (“Even if one person is disenfranchised … even if one vote is rigged, democracy is damaged because political equality is compromised to favour the ones who play foul”) and explains what we as citizens should expect of a free and fair election.
The most fundamental of expectations are that we “must be able to register as voters with minimal cost and trouble” and be able to vote “without much difficulty”, and our votes “must be counted with integrity”. By that token, we must also expect that the electoral roll “includes all citizens who are eligible to vote” and “nobody else”.
Wong, however, declares that the electoral rolls in Malaysia “fail on both accounts”. This is partly because as of March 2012, three million eligible citizens are still not registered voters. But what we may find more disturbing is his revelation that the electoral rolls “include many names who [sic] should not be there in the first place, such as illegally enfranchised foreigners, deceased voters, multiply-registered voters, voluntarily and involuntarily transferred voters who are non-residents in the constituency”.
It is amusing to note that entries like Kampung Baru and a Police Station at Kampung Kerinchi are registered voters on the electoral rolls.
Wong proposes synchronising the electorate database maintained by the Election Commission (EC) with the citizenry database of the National Registration Department (NRD) to minimise errors and allow for corrections to be made continually.
Although he does not say so explicitly, it would also facilitate automatic voter registration, one of the eight demands of Bersih, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections of which Wong is a steering committee member. The synchronisation of databases would alert the EC to instances of citizens turning 21 and attaining eligibility for voting.
Another disturbing point Wong raises concerns the legal impediments to transparency in the procedure for correction of errors. Section 9A of the Election Act 1958 prevents the electoral rolls from being challenged in court, and Regulation 25 of the Elections (Registration of Voters) Regulations gives “unchecked power” to the EC to “correct any errors free from any public scrutiny”.
This point is particularly pertinent in regard to the Malaysian EC because the public has lost much confidence in the commission’s ability and inclination to be independent and neutral in the conduct of its duty. One important measure that the public needs to take, therefore, is to lobby for the EC to be truly independent and neutral.
If this were achieved, we can be better assured that other conditions necessary for free and fair elections will be facilitated.
These would include what Wong describes as allowing citizens to make “informed decisions after deliberation” from the “availability of information from all perspectives”.
As such, there should be campaign freedom – a reasonable period for campaigning once an election is called; free airtime for all contesting parties on State-owned broadcast media like RTM and unbiased coverage in Bernama as well as private-owned media, like Utusan Malaysia, The Star, Sin Chew, Media Prima’s TV stations, etc; and no restrictions like those imposed in three by-elections at which the Home Ministry banned campaigners from “mentioning (a) Altantuya Shaariibuu, the Mongolian model cum interpreter whose murder was linked to Prime Minister (PM) Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor, and (b) the role of the Perak Palace in the state’s constitutional crisis”.
The impartiality of public institutions should also be upheld. This includes no abuse of government machinery by the ruling party, such as using official cars and helicopters for party campaigning or, worse, announcing development projects like in the Hulu Selangor “buy-election” when BN offered about RM136 million in projects, payments and compensations while the Pakatan Rakyat Selangor State Government offered about RM27.6 million’s worth.
And of course there should also be no pork barrelling at the hustings, the most famous example being the “I help you, you help me” offer of RM5 million for flood mitigation that Najib made to the Rejang Park voters in the Sibu by-election in return for their support of the BN candidate.
Nor should there be outright vote-buying, as in the alleged giving out of RM100 cash to each Chinese voter at a polling station during the Merlimau by-election.
It is the duty of the EC to report such transgressions but, unfortunately, it has not been fulfilling that duty.
By and large, the individual analyses of the 16 by-elections in the book, contributed by about a dozen observers ranging from journalists to researchers to political scientists, reveal how inept the EC has been, especially in not attending to electoral roll irregularities and preventing abuse of public institutions and corrupt practices.
In the Permatang Pauh by-election, for example, a voter was turned away from the polling station because on the electoral roll, he was said to be dead.
Furthermore, 949 voters were discovered to have disappeared from the constituency’s electoral roll. As the media reported the issue and the EC’s deputy chairman could not explain the disappearance, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin called on the EC to investigate it. However, “no finding was revealed to the public”.
In Bukit Selambau, election watchdog Malaysians for Free and Fair Elections (MAFREL) backed the Opposition’s claim that more than 60% of the voters in a housing estate were phantom voters, but the EC merely dismissed it.
In fact, the picture that emerges from the 16 analyses is that many of the complaints and allegations made during the by-elections were not resolved afterwards.
On the whole, as the editors sum up in the final chapter, “the integrity of the electoral rolls in Malaysia is highly questionable”. Citing extensively from research done by political scientist Ong Kian Ming, they elaborate on unexplained deletions of names; unaccounted-for additions; high number of voters registered under the same address; unusually high increase of military/police voters (most markedly in Lembah Pantai, currently a Pakatan Rakyat seat held by Nurul Izzah Anwar, which has seen a 1,024% growth of such voters); and other manifestations.
EC Chairman Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof has declared that Malaysia has “the cleanest electoral rolls in the world”, with problematic registrations amounting to only 42,051 names, but according to Ong’s research findings, the number is closer to 3 million.
Whomever you choose to believe, the outlook is far from rosy. The editors believe the irregularities are caused by deliberate fraud rather than administrative or clerical errors. They consider the state we’re in an “Orwellian absurdity”.
On our part, we the public should be pressing for accountability from the EC and other related authorities. Although Democracy at Stake? does not suggest how we could go about doing this, it focuses attention on a serious issue of our political life.
It’s up to us now to protect our democratic right. Taking to the streets through the Bersih rallies has been done and resulted in some headway, but this is unlikely the way to achieve the ultimate goal.
We need to think of other ways to shake the powers that be to get the real democracy we deserve.
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling book No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians, available in bookstores together with its Malay translation, Jangan Kelentong Lagi, Kita Semua Orang Malaysia.