Electoral Reform: Impressive changes leading to a robust democracy

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 6, 2019 - May 12, 2019.

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In Promise 17 of its manifesto, Pakatan Harapan (PH) committed itself to take firm action to restore the trust of the people in the elections, acknowledging that there are many concerns about the integrity of the electoral system.

Despite several seriously flawed structural issues in the electoral system and the way the previous Election Commission (EC) conducted the 14th general election (GE14), Pakatan Harapan still managed to defeat Barisan Nasional and form the federal government and eight state governments. This was due to a tidal wave of discontent with BN under Datuk Seri Najib Razak, which resulted in strategic voting by Malaysians nationwide for the party that was most likely to win in their constituency. PH swept most of the seats on the west coast while PAS won big in Kelantan and Terengganu.

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad promptly freed the EC from the grip of his office by administratively allowing it to function independently. However, the independence of the EC must be institutionalised through constitutional and legal amendments. These include the selection process of commissioners through a nomination committee and selection by a parliamentary select committee (PSC), empowering the EC to deal with election offences and improve the conduct of elections. The EC should also have operational independence in staffing and budget, subject to scrutiny by a dedicated PSC.

Another positive development since GE14 is the formation of a new team of election commissioners led by pro-reform lawyer Azhar Azizan Harun. Since the new team took over, the EC has improved on the processes of conducting elections, started cleaning up the electoral roll and engaged more with civil society organisations and other stakeholders.

All the commissioners from the old team resigned, led by former chairman Tan Sri Mohd Hashim Abdullah, who tendered his resignation last June. In October, the prime minister advised the king to initiate a tribunal to investigate the misconduct of the remaining members and have them removed. This triggered the resignation of the remaining six members. Nonetheless, the tribunal panel is still in discussion as to whether to proceed with the hearing or whether the resignations have rendered the hearing academic.

Mahathir also formed the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) last August with a two-year mandate to explore all areas of reform needed to make our electoral system one of the most robust in the world in order to uphold parliamentary democracy. On the table is a review of the current first-past-the-post election system, delineation, voter registration, election management body reform, caretaker government, voter education, political financing and all related legal amendments needed.

Plans are also underway to lower the voting age to 18, releasing a block of four million voters by GE15, and implement automatic voter registration, which would bring in another four million voters. There are concerns with the lowering of the voting age — would the youth be politically mature enough to vote? — but I believe interim and long-term measures can be introduced to raise their political awareness and increase their participation in the political process.

While there is a more open environment to discuss electoral reforms and willingness to effect some of the reforms on the part of the EC, the PH government still shows a reluctance to abide by the rules of electioneering. This can be seen by the plethora of election offences committed by PH candidates as well as the opposition in all the eight by-elections so far. No action has been taken on more than a thousand offences recorded by Bersih 2.0 and other election watchdogs. Admittedly, there is a need to bring clarity to these laws and to update them but the almost sense of impunity with which these laws are broken does not bode well for clean and fair elections in this country.

Thomas Fann is the chairperson of Bersih 2.0, the coalition for clean and fair elections