Politics and Policy: New EC for New Malaysia

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 8, 2019 - April 14, 2019.

Despite the perception that the EC is doing a good job thus far, it is seen as lacking clout, such as the power to prosecute and to implement election laws

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IN the Semenyih by-election last month, it was reported that Barisan Nasional (BN) swept the police votes. Incidentally, BN won the election.

While Pakatan Harapan (PH) wasn’t amused, the loss of the police votes disproves the notion that members of the uniformed forces and civil servants are usually coerced into voting for the ruling government, if not for anything else, for fear of being reprimanded if they vote otherwise. The talk back then was that they were said to believe the powers-that-be would know who they voted for — courtesy of information provided by the Election Commission of Malaysia (EC) to their bosses.

“Pre-GE14, the EC had a serious trust deficit with many Malaysians due to allegations of serious electoral misconduct,” says Bersih chairperson Thomas Fann in recalling the bad old days.

The misconduct, he notes, includes malapportionment and gerrymandering of electoral constituencies, a dirty electoral roll, short campaign period and fixing the polling day for the 14th general election on a Wednesday — a working day, which was later declared a public holiday. All these factors exacerbated the mistrust.

“The lack of transparency and engagement with critics like Bersih gave the negative perception that the EC was biased and was a tool of the BN government,” he adds.

Hence, the outcome in Semenyih, with the police votes going to the opposition, has somehow proved that elections are now indeed clean and fair. Kudos to the new EC and, if you like, the PH government for not interfering and allowing the commission to conduct elections the way they should be run.

With prominent lawyer Azhar Harun at the helm, the EC is now seen as doing just that. Nothing, it seems, escapes its attention. Candidates or political parties are hauled up for election offences, and those from the government of the day are not spared.

Admittedly, the BN is enjoying every minute of it. It is a fact that the obstacles it put in place to frustrate the opposition when it was in power are no longer there.

That apart, PH needs to find new ways to campaign. Gone are the days when the ruling elite could woo voters by promising millions of ringgit worth of projects to benefit the rakyat. Now, the government cannot make such promises.

The ruling coalition is also not allowed to use government resources — civil servants or government machinery — as well.

Fann says with a new team of EC members, greater engagement and transparency can be seen with stakeholders like political parties, non-governmental organisations and the public.

“Based on feedback from these stakeholders, we have seen improvements in the conduct of elections, with innovations introduced with each by-election”, he observes.

The campaign period has been extended to allow postal voters to send their ballots back in time. There are also more channels for voters to cast their votes, making the queues shorter. The EC issues warnings for election offences and sends postcards with voters’ details to those who register to vote.

Despite all these changes, there are still weaknesses in the system. Perhaps it’s a work in progress. Yet, it would be fair to say the playing field is level.

BN, expectedly, would not agree. Playing victim is always good for political parties, I suppose, to get the sympathy votes.

And it seems like everybody can complain about all sorts of things, to the extent of being ridiculous. One example is the complaint against a candidate for saying on election day that Insya-Allah, or God willing, the voters at the polling centre whom he spoke to would vote for him.

Perhaps it is a case of people exercising their right to the newfound freedom to complain?

Nonetheless, despite the perception that the EC is doing a good job thus far, it is seen as lacking clout, such as the power to prosecute and to implement election laws.

Is it time for the EC to have its own enforcement unit, which can take errant political parties, candidates and supporters to court?

EC deputy chairman Azmi Sharom says, “The EC has no enforcement or prosecution powers. To empower us would require new laws or the amendment of existing laws, and many other considerations like finance.”

Such an endeavour would take time. According to Azmi, “For the moment, we would rather focus on improving our cooperation with the police and MACC (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission)”.

That’s being frank, not the usual beating around the bush and sugarcoating stuff.

Another issue is pengundi hantu, or so-called phantom voters, which remains a bane. This requires a purge of the electoral roll, which is no doubt a mammoth task. Can this be done by GE15?

Cleaning up the electoral roll is one of the EC’s top priorities. Azmi says that was the chairman’s first initiative when he was appointed.

The EC is more empowered in this process as it does not need legislative changes to move ahead, he explains.

Realistically, he doubts that any roll can be perfect, “but I am confident that by the time GE15 comes around, ours will be much improved and cleaner”.

We look forward to that.

 

Mohsin Abdullah is contributing editor at The Edge. He has covered politics for the past four decades.

 

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