Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Malaysia’s opposition on Wednesday raised the stakes in its campaign against alleged fraud during the May 5 election as tens of thousands of people joined a mass rally on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur even as the government rejected official observers' conclusion that the poll was only partially free and not fair.
People started arriving in the stadium as early as 6pm local time and two hours later traffic on the major highways nearby was at a standstill. Many abandoned their vehicles and walked. Highways became car parks as did some petrol stations.
The stadium was packed to capacity with crowds thronging the surrounding roads and parks.
"This is the beginning of a battle between the Rakyat [People's Alliance] and an illegitimate, corrupt, and arrogant government," Anwar Ibrahim, who heads the three party opposition coalition, told the crowd.
A team is collating data on alleged irregularities, focussing its attention on around 30 seats where it feels the results were questionable and where the margin of victory was small.
The ruling Barisan Nasional, the world’s longest governing electoral coalition, got 133 seats with 47 percent of the popular vote. Pakatan, the opposition alliance, secured 51 per cent of the popular vote, but only 89 seats. Independents got the remainder. The election, the most intensely fought in Malaysian history, marks the first time Barisan has lost the popular vote.
Concern about the integrity of Malaysia’s electoral system has triggered mass street protests in the past few years, led by the civil society group Bersih, the Malay word for clean. The group put forward a number of proposals to improve the system ahead of Sunday’s vote, but the Elections Commission adopted only a few of them including the use of indelible ink and the deployment of official observers.
In their interim report, presented first to the EC and then released to the media on Wednesday, some of those observers concluded that the election was, “only partially free and not fair”.
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The observation mission, led by the think-tanks Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and the Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS), focussed on Peninsular Malaysia, deploying 325 observers to 99 constituencies throughout the campaign period. Appointed by the EC, its terms of reference were kept secret.
The report noted that the mainstream media, dominated and owned by Barisan was “heavily biased” in its favour, that government and military facilities were used for campaigning and there was a lack of trust in the EC and the electoral roll. The observers stressed too the lack of transparency in relation to political financing and the distortions created by vastly different constituency sizes, meaning that a vote in the country’s smallest constituency is worth nine in the largest.
“A lot of these irregularities are significant and important,’ said CPPS’ Ramon Navaratnam who was an advisor to the mission. “There’s this big problem with delineation. Unless you solve that problem it’s always going to be viewed as unfair.”
IDEAS founder and chief executive, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, said the outcome was the “best result that we can get bearing in mind all the challenges that we are facing”.
IDEAS and CPPS will release a final report once the EC, which is part of the Prime Minister’s Office, has responded to its findings. Merdeka Center, the country’s most respected polling organisation, which was also part of the official mission, will release its conclusions next week.
In a statement responding to the interim report, the government said it rejected some of the "accusations" because it believed they had gone beyond the scope of their work.
"This report strays far outside the original mandate, by choosing to provide ‘context’ by taking a ‘long-term view… [over] the last few years', rather than just the election period itself," the statement said.
On Tuesday it accused the opposition of making a “host of unsubstantiated allegations about the elections".
Even before polls opened on Sunday there were concerns about the integrity of the electoral roll, with analysts noting large increases in voters which were not linked to patterns of population growth. Reports that thousands of people were being flown from Borneo to Kuala Lumpur on specially chartered flights, acknowledged by Barisan as “normal” and paid for by “friends”, also triggered outrage and online campaigns to stop “foreigners” voting that sometimes descended into racism.
On the voting day itself, there were problems with indelible ink, spoilt votes actually exceeding the winning margin and reports of vouchers and cash being given to voters. As Singapore Management University’s Bridget Welsh noted in a report, such issues become “more salient” when a third of all seats were won by margins of less than 10 per cent.
Bersih, which mounted its own unofficial monitoring mission known as PEMANTAU, on Monday noted “serious electoral fraud” and alleged that some of its volunteers had been harassed by Barisan’s party workers.
It has set up a “People’s Tribunal” to investigate the claims – they’re expected to work closely with opposition politicians who are doing the same.
Anwar has promised a “fierce” campaign to highlight the irregularities.
The rally attracted Malaysians from all walks of life and ethnicities. They thronged the stadium, packed the field and spilled out onto the surrounding streets.
Dressed mostly in black and waving flags of the three main opposition parties, they shouted and waved the flags of the three parties. Some sat on motorbikes, others hung from the gates to get a better view.
"People in the city are more informed but people in the villages are more followers," said a local resident who only wanted to be named as Mr Sathien. He joined the rally with his wife. "Malaysian elections have never been fair. It began with gerrymandering. This protest will show the world that Malaysian elections are not fair. That's the intention."
Or as fellow protester Gary Yeo put it, "Malaysians have woken up. They know what goes on."