Politics and Policy: Building a credible election system

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 4, 2020 - May 10, 2020.

Photo by Kenny Yap/The Edge

Abdul Rashid: We feel that with these changes, we will be on par with developed nations, with credible elections. Photo by Suhaimi Yusuf/The Edge

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ON a visit to Australia to study its voting system, Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, the chairman of the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC), was surprised that no policemen were anywhere to be seen during polling.

“Not in the street, not at polling stations, not at counting stations, not at tallying centres,” he said in an interview with The Edge.

When Abdul Rashid asked Australian election officials, he was embarrassed to have a question posed to him in return: Why do you need policemen?

To the minds of Australian voters, they own the elections, so it seems like the whole population is the electoral body, says Abdul Rashid.

“How wonderful. I’ve been dreaming since then that one day, we will come to that stage where the Election Commission (EC) is not the subject of ridicule, not the subject of complaint,” he said.

In late April, that dream came one step closer to reality when the ERC’s recommendations for electoral reform were presented to the prime minister.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin welcomed the recommendations and looked towards the committee’s implementation plans, ERC chief executive Amerul Muner Mohammad said in a text message to The Edge.

A long road lies ahead, first for the Cabinet to approve the ERC’s proposals, which have 15 components, then for Parliament to deliberate on them.

The ERC was set up in August 2018 following the 14th general election of May that year, which ended the 61-year run of the Barisan Nasional government. The committee presented its interim report in January this year and is due to submit its voluminous full report in August.

Three major changes stand out from among the areas under review: enhancement of the EC’s functions, new rules for political funding and a separate body to conduct elections.

“First things first, we’re talking about strengthening our democratic practices,” says Abdul Rashid, who is a former EC chairman.

“As far as that is concerned, the sky is the limit. The government has not given me any instruction on how far to take it,” he says about the terms of reference he received from former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Using the best practices of developed democracies as a benchmark, the committee seeks to bring Malaysia’s elections up to international standards. To that end, it consulted widely with officials in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the UK, Germany and other countries.

“If you want to run an electoral democracy, the standard must be of a level that is considered to be free, fair and transparent, and the ground for all political parties must be level. Otherwise, it’s not really democracy, but half-baked,” says Abdul Rashid.

Dispelling the notion that the current election system works to the advantage of the incumbent, Abdul Rashid explains that what really favours the government in power is the legal framework governing the conduct of the election.

“We have a very poor election law,” he says. “Our law is still very democratic but we are lacking in many areas. These missing components help the government, not really the system itself,” says Abdul Rashid.

“At election time, there is no law to stop the government from discriminating between groups. There is nothing in our Elections Act giving power to the EC. And the other laws concerning the media are in the hands of the government,” he points out.

Under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, which Malaysia inherited from the British colonial government, the winner may get a small percentage of the votes if there are many candidates. In a sense, voters who choose the losing candidates have wasted their votes.

“I know of a candidate who got only 30% of the votes. He won the election with only 3,000 votes out of 10,000 who turned up to vote,” says Abdul Rashid, who presided over six general elections when he was the EC chairman.

That system only works well for parties that are wise enough to form a coalition that has broad appeal, Abdul Rashid explains. Coalition politics is essential, particularly in Malaysia where the multiracial electorate is a factor to reckon with, he opines.

If the country wants to retain the FPTP system, there must be some modifications to evolve a better system, he says.

In January, Abdul Rashid had announced that the ERC is proposing that the FPTP system be retained for state elections, and parliamentary seats decided by a party-list proportional representation system, where electors vote for parties instead of candidates.

Nevertheless, ethnic politics will always remain a factor in Malaysian elections, says Abdul Rashid.

“In this country, whatever election system is used, you are going to have elections based on racial grounds. But if you want to take power, then you need to have that kind of coalition,” he observes.

“In the towns, you have the Chinese and Indian voters. Outside town, you have Malay voters. In Sabah and Sarawak, you have the indigenous peoples. You have to appeal to the various ethnic communities. That will never go away, it’s not possible to get rid of it,” says Abdul Rashid. “Until you have the concept one day when all Malaysians think alike. I don’t know when that day will be.”

As for the recommendations to enhance the EC’s role, he says, it covers policy matters, enforcement of laws and auditing of party conduct and finances, besides other functions.

The committee proposes that the EC should handle the registration of parties instead of the Registrar of Societies, which is under the government.

“If we go through with this one, one battle is won. You have the freedom to organise but you have to behave,” says Abdul Rashid, referring to political parties.

The regulation of political funding is planned to ensure greater fairness. Donors will be required by law to declare political funding and limits will be placed on the amount that can be donated to parties. State funds will also be provided for parties to maintain their organisations.

A separate body to be called Election Malaysia will conduct elections. It will prepare the rules, monitor the establishment of polling districts and localities and such matters.

Voter registration will be automatic in the new scheme of things.

“We hope this will give the EC a real chance to clean up the rolls,” says Abdul Rashid.

With the next general election due in 2023, the EC will have a big job getting some 22 million people to come out and vote.

“We have to launch a big national campaign to develop a voter education system to encourage people to vote,” says Abdul Rashid.

Civic education of the people’s freedoms must be given priority and done earnestly on a big scale, he says. A special institute that has the resources to carry out this function is being proposed. This will require a sizeable budget.

Political analyst Dr Wong Chin Huat, who is a member of the ERC, notes that the EC needs to be given full support to pursue the proposed reforms to the electoral process, which are within its jurisdiction.

“For the larger systemic reforms from the electoral system to political financing, the ERC’s proposals need to be deliberated in depth for real acceptance both among political parties and by the general public,” he says in a text message to The Edge.

Open and frank debate and deliberation must take place to build consensus on the bigger issues, Wong advises.

Another major change is a proposal to establish a Boundary Commission separate from the EC. It will be formed on an ad hoc basis and tasked just to undertake the delineation of constituencies.

“Appointments to these three bodies will be done not as it is today. It will be very transparent. That is our recommendation,” says Abdul Rashid.

The nomination process will be expanded from the current one hour to a five-day period and will be done online.

The ERC is also proposing that early notice of elections be given, as most developed countries announce them six months to a year ahead.

The proposals also recommend the establishment of a caretaker government when an election is due, so that the incumbent cannot use money or change policies during the campaign period.

Fair access to media is also being recommended through amendments to laws, except for the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission Act, so that the EC will have some say during the election period only.

When the committee’s tenure expires in August, Abdul Rashid hopes that the government will appoint another body to ensure that the changes are introduced in line with the ERC’s recommendations.

“We feel that with these changes, we will be on par with developed nations, with credible elections,” he says.


Rash Behari Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge