by R.C. | KUALA LUMPUR
Dec 19th 2012
ALL year, it seems, Malaysia has been on a war footing. For elections, that is—and thankfully, rather than anything more martial. The country operates on a Westminster-style parliamentary system, so the prime ministers’ five-year term does not officially end until early next summer. Nonetheless, Najib Razak and his people have been talking up the chances of going to the polls before then pretty well continuously over the past 18 months or so, which keeps everyone guessing.
Now, with the end of the year in sight and no further announcements, it seems that Mr Najib will take this down to the wire. Given that he can only go to the country after Chinese New Year next February, most people expect him to plump for the latest date he can in the electoral calendar, which would be about late March or early April.
His supporters say, why rush? With a generally favourable economic outlook, tame state media and all the advantages of incumbency, there is no reason why Mr Najib can’t enjoy the rest of his term of office without worrying about the 13th general election. After all, he has a bit of history on his side, to put it mildly—the ruling political alliance, Barisan Nasional (BN), has never lost a general election since independence in 1957.
His critics, however, detect signs of nervousness about the outcome—mainly, the endless indecision about when to go to the polls. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that this will be the closest race in Malaysia’s history, even more so than the last general election in 2008. On that occasion, the BN lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time, thus losing its powers to make changes to the constitution. Just as bad, five of the 12 contested state legislatures were won by the opposition, compared with only one in the previous election. Mr Najib knows that to placate his hardline critics within the BN he has to not only win, but win big. They want the BN to claw back most of what the party lost last time. It’s a tall order.
With so much at stake, every vote counts…but only if every vote is counted. Democracy activists and other election-watchers are concerned that many of the criteria for a free and fair election have not been met by the government and the government-appointed Election Commission.
Over the past few years the campaign for open and fair elections has been led by Bersih (meaning “clean” in Malay), a loose coalition of civil-rights and human-rights NGOs and others.
The head of Bersih, Ambiga Sreenevasan, sounded gloomy last week about the prospects for this election. “It will be the dirtiest election we have seen for a long time”, she warned. She points to the more overt signs of this, such as “increasing political violence” (at political rallies, for example) and more subtle signs such as “constant reports of discrepancies on the electoral roll in west Malaysia.”
Having campaigned for very specific improvements to the conduct of elections, Ms Ambiga says that the authorities have take action only with respect to the proposal that voters be marked with indelible ink (and even then not entirely to her satisfaction). On everything else, such as the neglected right of all sides to enjoy equal access to the media, Ms Ambiga says that the electoral authorities “give me and Bersih no reason at all to believe that anything will change before the election”.
With official overseas election observers (apart from ASEAN) apparently considered unnecessary by the government, Bersih is setting up its own “citizens-observers’ campaign”. Mr Ambiga says that they need 30,000 observers, but expect to get only 10,000. Bersih will train them. They might soon be busy people