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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Electoral Reform a Must Before Next General Election

By Kee Thuan Chye | Malaysian Digest

PRIME Minister Najib Razak is suddenly so generous in calling for electoral reform. He has even called for the establishment of a parliamentary select committee (PSC) to look into this. While it is still premature to say whether this will ensure effective participation by the Opposition in the process, it is nonetheless a radical change from his previous stubborn position against Bersih 2.0’s demands for free and fair elections.

As with much of Malaysian politics, there is probably more to all this than what appears on the surface. Najib must have been comforted by some assurance of electoral victory – and possibly a landslide one – before he would allow himself to accede to an initiative begun by Bersih 2.0. Otherwise, he would be seen to be weak by his own party, Umno, which no doubt would have players in the wings with knives behind their backs.

One hopes this assurance of certain victory does not involve giving illegal immigrants the right to vote. In light of Wanita PKR’s revelation that it has evidence of illegal immigrants taking an oath to vote for BN, this is disturbing.

That’s putting it mildly. For nothing could be so heinous on the part of our government, indeed any government, than to sell the country to foreigners just for the purpose of staying on in power. Such a move of granting citizenships to immigrants overnight would also be extremely unfair to the many who have lived in this country for decades and continue to hold red ICs. But above all, it is the sinister motive that makes it inexcusable.

Talk has indeed been rife for the past few months that a project of this sinister nature is already in the works. More suspicions were raised when the Election Commission (EC) announced it would use the biometric system to identify voters as this is the system also being used by the Government in its 6P amnesty program to register foreign workers as well as illegal immigrants. Opposition politicians are especially worried that those not qualified to vote could in the process get registered as voters. The illegal immigrants that Wanita PKR says were made to swear an oath of allegiance to Umno/BN are allegedly from the 6P amnesty program.

This sort of tactic, together with the granting of citizenships to new immigrants, has supposedly been used in Project M (also known as Project IC) in Sabah when Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister, so that the demographic and voting patterns would favor BN and entrench it as the ruling regime there. If this is being repeated now, it would reaffirm BN’s ruthless tendency to stoop to underhand tactics to serve its own cause, without any regard for the people.

There is also the possibility that Najib’s call for the setting-up of a PSC is merely a public relations ploy, in light of what Dewan Rakyat Deputy Speaker Datuk Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar has said in response – that it would take a year before the committee can conclude discussions.

If Najib had prior knowledge of that before making his announcement, then his move counts for nothing. The next general election (GE) may very well be called soon, less than a year from now. Which means it may be held prior to the electoral reform. Which means it may be held with the shortcomings of the current system still intact. How can that be satisfactory?

If doing it via the PSC takes too long, even though Najib still has one and a half years left before calling for fresh polls, then another method must be sought.

For example, on the pressing and crucial issue of cleaning the electoral roll, which has been found to be full of dirt and discrepancies, Bersih 2.0 chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan has suggested this: “Set up a committee, give it three months and let’s just clean it up.” Why not take this suggestion up? The committee could be made up of the EC, BN and Pakatan Rakyat representatives, the Bar Council and Bersih 2.0.

A few other issues can also be addressed through stakeholder discussions that could take only a matter of a few months.

One is the debate on Bersih 2.0’s advocacy for the use of indelible ink versus the EC’s proposal to use the biometric system.

Another is the debate over the length of the campaign period. Bersih 2.0 is asking for a minimum of 21 days but the EC has been giving excuses against it. In the 1959 and 1964 GEs, the campaign period was as long as 35 days, and for the one in 1969, it was 28 days. A reasonable length of time is needed to let voters acquaint themselves with the candidates and their promises, but Najib has scoffed at the idea that a short campaign period is a disadvantage to the Opposition, claiming that Pakatan Rakyat campaigns “every day… with a ceramah here and a ceramah there”. He, however, ignores the fact that his own ruling party gets to campaign day in day out on a much larger scale through the mass media it controls.

Even during the campaign period, the ruling party has almost total access to the print and broadcasting media. Prior to the 1999 GE, Opposition parties were given at least a bit of airtime on RTM’s radio stations to broadcast their manifestoes. But in 1999, the Government announced that as RTM was Government-owned, preference would be given to government parties. Since then, no Opposition party has been heard on the air.

It is for this reason that one of Bersih 2.0’s demands is the granting of free and fair access to the media to all political parties. As the ruling party becomes merely a caretaker government when a general election is in progress, it should not hog the media facilities but instead open them up to all political parties, including the Opposition. Resolving this issue through discussion should also not take long.

Neither should the issue of reforming postal voting.

Whatever the process adopted to ensure that electoral reform is achieved, it is imperative that it be completed before the 13th GE. If Najib is truly sincere about reform, if his statements that “we will only want to form a government if the rakyat truly chooses Barisan Nasional” and that “I do not want to be prime minister without the people’s support” are to be believed, he should make a pledge not to call for the 13th GE until the reform has been effected.

And while all this is going on, let’s not forget that Bersih 2.0 is still considered illegal, after Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein declared it so last month. He should now admit that if it had not been for Bersih 2.0’s insistence on electoral reform, embodied in its eight demands and publicly vented in its July 9 mass rally, we would not have arrived at this point.

Hishammuddin should admit that Bersih 2.0 has demonstrated the power that civil society can have to pressure the ruling party to re-examine its stand. He should also note that the Deputy Speaker has now actually said, that as electoral reform is a matter of great importance to the public interest, “It is best we discuss it in-depth and involve all stakeholders including Bersih, NGOs, the Bar Council and civil society.”

If no less than the Deputy Speaker of Parliament has expressed recognition of Bersih 2.0, isn’t it about time that Hishammuddin revoked his order against the group?

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