Will elections in Malaysia be free or fair?

Malaysia’s electoral system suffers from serious flaws, according to a leading activist from the opposition.

Reform groups are concerned over reports that ink used to mark voters can be washed off [AFP/Getty Images]

On May 5, Malaysians will vote in one of the most contentious general elections in the country’s history. Unfortunately, Malaysia’s electoral system is plagued by irregularities and unfairness at a time when a strong, independent electoral process is most needed.

Since its inception, Bersih 2.0 – a group pushing for electoral reforms, of which I am a co-chair – has argued for eight key reforms in its campaign for clean and fair elections. Over the past four years, Bersih 2.0 has made inroads in raising public awareness on the necessity for these reforms. The resulting public pressure has forced the federal government and the election commission to take a position on these issues and to make some overtures – albeit not entirely satisfactory – towards electoral reform.

Despite government posturing, however, the only reform that has been implemented for the upcoming general election is the introduction of the use of indelible ink. However, we have expressed our concern that the plan to apply the ink before the vote is cast may result in the smudging of the ballot paper and delays in the voting process.

In view of the flawed electoral process, Bersih 2.0 has launched a project called “Pemantau” in which we are deploying Malaysian citizens to observe the elections across the country. Thus far, Bersih 2.0 has mobilised 2,000 observers in 55 parliamentary districts. The observers will monitor election violations including bribery and the misuse of government resources to benefit particular political parties.

With voting day fast approaching, there has already been a long stream of evidence of electoral irregularities and breach of election laws.

Reports of phantom voters, double registrations, unauthorised registrations and unauthorised changing of voting constituencies have haunted Malaysian elections for years. Despite widespread support for a comprehensive clean-up, the election commission has in our view failed to do so.

The latest report of the Malaysian Electoral Roll Analysis Project shows there are at least 28,593 “voters of foreign origin” on the electoral roll, most of them concentrated in Sabah and Selangor, both of which are considered to be important states in the elections.

The Selangor state government, helmed by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, has alleged that 28 percent of the 440,000 new voters in Selangor who have registered since the last elections cannot be identified. However, all attempts by the state government to have the election commissioninvestigate or even hear the complaints have failed.

Incidents of violence

Over the last year, there have been many reported incidents of violence during political rallies, usually involving a group of people attempting to disrupt the events or to intimidate speakers and participants. The violence is largely targeted at the opposition.

On April 23, the violence reached new heights when a bomb was detonated during a Barisan Nasional political gathering in Penang, resulting in one person being injured by flying debris. Two other incidents of bombing and the hurling of petrol bombs at Barisan Nasional campaign areas have been reported. Recently, two unknown men with their faces covered by ski masks entered the house of an opposition MP and set fire to his daughter’s car.

While the police have recently said they will crack down on any election-related violence, they must be careful that their actions match their words and that there is no disparity in how they deal with violence on either side of the political divide.

There are also many reported instances of fear being used to coerce civil servants and vulnerable or marginalised communities into voting for the ruling party. These tactics include threats that the voters may lose their jobs, pensions, scholarships and other benefits if they support the opposition.

Unsavoury smear campaigns have become a feature of the Malaysian political landscape: for instance, pornographic videos of opposition candidates are constantly surfacing and are widely shown.

Public funds

Caretaker governments at the federal and state levels have abused government resources to campaign for political parties. For example, it was reported that on April 8 that vehicles belonging to the Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture were used to facilitate the opening of Barisan Nasional’s election command centre for the Batu parliamentary constituency.

In an article entitled “Buying support – Najib’s ‘commercialisation’ of GE13”, Bridget Welsh, an associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University, estimated that the Najib administration spent a total of 57.7bn ringgit ($19.02bn) in the four years since he took over as prime minister on election-related incentives.

On April 10, the Malaysian Insider, quoting data from consumer analysts Nielsen Media Research, reported that Barisan Nasional and the prime minister’s office had cumulatively spent 73m ringgit ($24m) in March 2013 on advertising. The article also quoted a report by Maybank Investment Bank Bhd that the prime minister’s office had spent 36.1m ringgit ($11.9m) on advertising in February 2013.

It is no exaggeration to say that millions of public dollars have been poured into schemes and allocations, in what appears to be efforts to sweeten the image of the political parties contesting the elections.

Pemantau has also witnessed instances of vote-buying by Barisan Nasional during this election campaign, and has recorded the handing out of cash vouchers to members of the public in Alor Setar and Nibong Tebal. It is anticipated that such actions will continue unabated until election day.

A biased mainstream media

The University of Nottingham, in collaboration with the Centre for Independent Journalism, is running a “Watching the Watchdog” project to monitor and analyse media reporting trends during the elections.

In a report dated April 21 that contained an analysis of data collected over a period of seven days between the dissolution of parliament and Nomination Day, the researchers concluded that Malaysians are being deprived of fair and objective information about the political parties and coalitions that are taking part in the elections. The analysis found that the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and its parties are given the most coverage and the most favourable coverage, and that the only news sources that do not conform to these trends are the online news portals, which give approximately equal quantities and quality of coverage to both the ruling coalition and the opposition.

Bersih 2.0 is also concerned to hear of allegations that political pressure is being put on a number of media outlets, as this will adversely affect the ability of voters to make an informed choice.

The factors that have perpetuated the election environment we face today are the very elements that have driven Bersih 2.0’s campaign for clean and fair elections over the last four years.

The elections were widely anticipated to be the dirtiest in the country’s history, and thus far, reality has exceeded expectations. The caretaker prime minister has failed to live up to the Transparency International pledge that he had signed promising ethical conduct.

We anticipate that more challenges lie ahead. We have called on every citizen eligible to come out and cast their vote. We believe that the one way we can fight the abuse in the system is to overwhelm it with a high voter turnout. We believe Malaysians will respond. Even Malaysians overseas are returning to vote on May 5. We believe Malaysians will surprise us and that we will see the highest voter turnout in our history.

I wish to thank Mahaletchumi Balakrishnan in assisting me with the research for this article.

Ambiga Sreenevasan is a lawyer, the former president of the Malaysian Bar, and the co-chair of Bersih 2.0, a group calling for free and fair elections in Malaysia.