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ATimes: Malaysia's ruling party tightens the screws
By Anil Netto

27/3/2002 12:54 am Wed

March 27, 2002

Southeast Asia


Malaysia's ruling party tightens the screws

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 deposits.

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 allowed.

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.