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Friday, June 10, 2011

Towards electoral reform in Malaysia

[New Mandala] March 12th, 2011

“The [Malaysian] Election Commission only conducts and manages elections… I wish you would have gone to the Cabinet or the Attorney-General with your reform proposals as the commission doesn’t have the power to make laws”

– Datuk Wira Wan Ahmad, deputy chief of the Election Commission.

A public forum with the Election Commission (EC), organized by Bersih (the Coalition for clean and fair elections) on 22 February 2011 in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, turned out to be one of the most frustrating yet entertaining sessions for many activists longing to see electoral reforms in Malaysia.

The deputy chief (of the EC), Datuk Wira Wan Ahmad Wan Omar was the center of attention. He was stormed with questions right from the word go.

The Member of Parliament for Lembah Pantai, Nurul Izzah Anwar, questioned the delay in the use of indelible ink. Prior to the 2008 General Election, the government purchased indelible ink as a response to the civil society’s demands. The plan was however scrapped at the last hour, quoting security and public order issues.

Wan Ahmad explained that it was scrapped following instructions from the government. However, Nurul Izzah argued that the Deputy Commissioner was passing the buck, quoting Mohd Nazri Abdul Aziz, the minister in the Prime Minister department, who had explicitly denied the directive and stated that the cabinet merely ‘expressed their concern’ (over the use of indelible ink) to the Election Commission.

The deputy commissioner however evaded further attacks by stating that the EC was now working on a biometric system. He argued that the use of indelible ink is a sign of ‘going backwards’, as only countries like India and Bangladesh which has ‘huge population’ and ‘young democracy’ utilizes it.


Question remains on what harm would it make if the country uses indelible ink? Does the commission have the credibility to talk about a sophisticated biometric system, if they had failed to even implement indelible ink, the simpler and inexpensive method?

Furthermore, it is widely believed that Prime Minister Najib is likely to call for general election in the near future (possible as early as June 2011). The next general election is vital in determining the country’s political landscape – the Barisan Nasional (BN/National Front) to seek a return of two-third majority in Parliament, while the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Coalition) is hoping that the Tsunami of 2008 will once again visit Malaysia and with larger force, to topple the BN.

When asked if they will consider indelible ink in the next general election, given that biometric most probably won’t be ready by then, the deputy chief seems adamant that biometric system was the way to go.

Another key question was on automatic registration. Currently there are some 4 million eligible voters who are not registered. The second man in the Election Commission did not think that it is a good idea and quoted the five following reasons:
i) Many do not take the initiative to change their address and might be residing in area that is not in accordance to their identification card;

ii) Many can’t be bothered to vote and their rights must be respected;

iii) All registered voters’ particular will be made public in the electoral roll; privacy should therefore be respected as some might not be comfortable with it.

iv) The drastic increase in voters will cause imbalance in the population of voters in the respective constituencies;

v) There are legal aspects which need to be amended to allow the change.

Among other issues raised were the increase in postal voters. There are 134,000 army officials and spouses alone. This highly opaque system has led to much electoral fraud in the Malaysian experience. No forthcoming answers were provided.

On another issue, one campaigned by the MyOverseasVote, Wan Ahmad clarified that overseas students can vote as absentee voters and assured that the mistake had been clarified with Malaysian embassies.

With regards to phantom voting, the deputy commissioner declined to comment as it has not been proven despite many allegations.

Towards the end, Datuk Wira Wan Ahmad reiterated that the Malaysian Election Commission is only empowered to conduct and manage election, and has no say over law-making. All reforms that need provision from law, will need the passing of bill/s in the Parliament. While the Commission can make proposal, the deputy put it bluntly: ‘but this is not the practice of this country, having been under this government for so long’.

The chairperson of Bersih, Ambiga Sreenevasan however assured him that if the EC is committed to reform, then civil society is ready to stand behind the EC’s reform agenda.

It’s time for the EC to do its duty and stand with the people by ensuring free and fair elections, rather than legitimise the regime in power.

Ivy Kwek is a Malaysian with a special interest in socio-political issues.

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