Msia can set example for Islamic nations but EC, govt too "defensive" - Muslim polls group
The Muslim American Election Observers Committee, in Malaysia on a fact-finding mission, says the country has the chance to "set the standard" for the Muslim and emerging worlds if the authorities could be less "defensive" and more sincere in conducting free and fair polls.
The Committee highlighted 3 main areas of weaknesses that it said would hinder confidence amongst the Malaysian people, including the questionable integrity of the electoral roll; the lack of free and fair access for the Opposition to the mainstream print and broadcast media; the absence of any plans to establish a caretaker government immediately preceding the ballot to ensure fairness.
"As democratic movements sweep across the Muslim world, we believe that Malaysia is in a position to set the standard. Our presence here is an effort to urge continued progress towards meeting international standards for free and fair elections," Dr Inayat Maliki, co-chair of the Interfaith Dialogue at Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) told a press conference on Thursday.
"Malaysia has shown steady progress. Material progress is important but progress in the political arena is also important because that's what will ensure the viability and financial health of a country. A lot of Muslim countries lack a truly democratic process. A lot of Muslims nations are ruled by dictatorships and the change of rule of government has been or by military coups. There have not been many models for peaceful transitions especially in a multi-party format."
EC & incumbent government not doing enough
Malik and his colleagues Mirza Baig (from the Elections & Democracy Committee) and Mazen Asbahi (Counsel for ISNA), who came to Kuala Lumpur at the invitation of the office of Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, made it clear that they were non-partisan observers and would have responded if Prime Minister Najib Razak's government or any other party had extended the same invitation.
Malik took the Election Commission and the authorities to task for not doing more to ensure free and fair polls. When meeting EC officials, his Committee offered to return to Malaysia to observe the 13th general election, which must be called before June 2013.
However, they were rebuffed with the EC replying that they could visit Malaysia any time as "tourists".
"That would hardly be fulfilling our role," said Malik, adding that although the Najib administration knew they coming, the authorities made no apparent effort to contact them.
Nurul Izzah, the PKR MP for Lembah Pantai who was also at the press conference, expressed regret at the EC's 'discourtesy'.
"It's sad but why are we not surprised. We were very disappointed when Transparency International Malaysia announced its decision to pull out because it knew it would not be given a chance to carry out its work. Why reject international observers if the elections are going to be fair," Nurul told Malaysia Chronicle.
Very unsual to have same government for a prolonged period of time
Malik also said that it was "very unsual" for democratic nations not to experience any changes in governments for a prolonged period of time.
"It is seldom for democratic nations to continue to be ruled for a period of time by the same government. Not that there is anything wrong if there is transparency and accountability. But it is very unusual because the people themselves want to see changes, try new things, new ideas and people should be allowed to decide. We hope that Muslim nations across the world can transform or move into a democratic form of transition. This is necessary for continued progress."
Malik pin-pointed the lack of a "free press" to be the greatest obstacle currently hampering free and fair polls.
"The media seems to be totally reflective of one viewpoint. Reading the newspapers since we were here, there're very little divergent viewpoints offered There may be different angles but these eventually converge to the same viewpoint. It is a free media that makes a country democratic and the ability of the media to criticise the government, and not have to fear having their licence revoked or being hauled to jail. That's where Malaysia needs to make progress," he said.
'Dirty' electoral roll & caretaker government
In the Committee's meeting with EC reps, Malik said his Commitee also raised the issues of -
> "significant numbers of non-resident voters being registered by political parties in closely-contested constituencies";
> "questionable use of government authority to register foreign-born resdents";
> "difficulties in challenging the validity of the electoral rolls given the lack of access to electronic records and time and cost requirements".
The Committee also recommended a caretaker government to ensure "fairness and prevent abuse of government powers and resources to impact the conduct and outcome of elections".
Somebody must do something
Malik, however, does not appear to expect much positive response from either the EC or the Najib administration, and this could reflect on the country going forward.
"[For example], we feel it is the duty of the EC to say it [the lack of equal access to the mainstream media] is a hindrance to free and fair election. They say there's only so much they can do," said Malik.
"They shouldn't get defensive. Somebody needs to be doing something , somebody, the government, the Ruler, somebody needs to be doing something."