ATimes: Malaysia's ruling party tightens the screws
By Anil Netto
27/3/2002 12:54 am Wed
March 27, 2002 atimes.com
By Anil Netto
PENANG, Malaysia - A controversial new bill to amend
election laws has sparked an outcry among critics who
argue that it will tighten the ruling coalition's grip on
power and deal a blow for democracy.
The first reading of the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2002
in parliament last Wednesday will almost inevitably lead
to far-reaching changes to the Elections Act 1958, given
the huge parliamentary majority held by the ruling Barisan
Nasional (National Front) coalition of Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamad, which now holds 148 of the 193 seats.
The amendments will effectively block any attempt to
challenge the validity of the finalized electoral roll of
registered voters. The Bill proposes that "after an
electoral roll has been certified or re-certified ... the
electoral role shall be deemed to be final and binding and
shall not be questioned or appealed against in, or
reviewed, quashed or set aside by, any court".
This amendment follows a court ruling in Sabah state last
year that nullified a Barisan Nasional candidate's win
amid complaints of "phantom voters" on the electoral roll.
"The issue at hand is whether the Election Commission can
guarantee that the electoral rolls are up-to-date and
clean, including devoid of phantom voters," said Dr
Francis Loh, secretary of the social reform group Aliran.
Any person who complains about the inclusion of a
particular voter on the roll could also end up much poorer
if the complaint cannot be reasonably substantiated. The
Bill would require the complainant to pay higher
compensation of RM1,000 (US$263), previously not more than
RM200, to the person "aggrieved" by the objection.
Critics have questioned the need for this change. "Should
we agree to a new law which will make it legally
impossible to challenge the elections on the grounds that
the electoral roll is flawed?" asked a group of 10
prominent activists in a letter published in a local
daily. According to the government, they noted, all
possible irregularities should be dealt with and settled
before the election and not after: voters and political
parties have the right to inspect the roll when it is put
up for public scrutiny and that is when objections are
supposed to be raised.
"That is all well and good. But as the revised electoral
roll is available only a few weeks before an election,
there is little time to investigate cases of possible
irregularities before the election. Many of the
irregularities also become apparent only on the actual day
of polling," they said.
Another proposed amendment will allow the Elections
Commission to issue the writ and notice of election
earlier than at present whenever a seat is vacated. This
could mean that candidates and political parties would
have even less time to prepare for a by-election - a
further handicap for opposition parties who already have
little meaningful access to the mainstream media.
One of the more mystifying - or perhaps not - amendments
is the proposal to replace the phrase "sealed ballot box"
with "secure ballot box".
The Bill will also make it more expensive for political
parties to field a large slate of candidates. The proposal
to hike the election deposit by a candidate from RM5,000
to RM20,000 has been roundly criticized as favoring the
richer parties. In the past, certain political parties,
stretched for resources especially during general election
campaigns, asked their candidates to finance their own
campaigns. The latest amendment will effectively narrow
down the choice of candidates available to these parties
to those who can afford to pay the proposed higher
One columnist, writing for the pro-establishment daily New
Straits Times, suggested that political parties should
receive some public funding. "The Commission should make
provision from public funds to disburse election grants to
all political parties contesting an election at the rate
of two ringgit for every vote obtained in the previous
election as part of the state's commitment to democracy,"
said Harun Hashim, a retired judge. Harun also noted that
political parties are currently registered under the
Societies Act 1966, a law that, he said, "is absolutely
unsuitable for political parties".
Political parties, being partisan in nature, should not
owe their existence to the courtesy of the Home Affairs
Minister, whose portfolio includes the Registry of
Societies, said Harun. "Political parties are the product
of the constitutional right of association whose primary
objective is to contest elections," he said. "It is only
logical that political parties should be registered and
supervised by the Election Commission."
But that assumes that the Election Commission itself is
independent. "It is important to keep in mind that the
Commission is no longer the independent body it used to
be," said Loh. "Due to an earlier Constitutional
amendment, the Commission is now answerable to parliament,
which is of course dominated by the Barisan Nasional."
Further changes are on the cards: a review of the
electoral constituency boundaries could lead to more
assembly seats being created in states such as Johor, a
stronghold of the Barisan Nasional - once again triggering
accusations of gerrymandering.
Loh called for serious and meaningful reforms: he urged
the ruling coalition to amend the laws and direct the
Election Commission, "which it controls in reality", to
look into various pressing issues. These include the
imbalance in the number of voters in the various
constituencies, the unequal access to the mainstream
media, and "the lies and misinformation" especially during
election campaigns. He also called for a public
declaration of electoral finances by all candidates, for
longer campaign periods, and for open-air rallies to be
But given the high stakes involved and the fact that the ruling coalition, along with its forerunner, has held a firm grip on power since independence, few are hopeful of meaningful electoral reforms in the near future.