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MGG: Ketari X: The noose tightens, but not yet in Ketari
By M.G.G. Pillai

1/4/2002 1:31 am Mon

The election campaign for the Ketari byelections is over. Polling stations have opened, and before the day is out, it would have a new state assemblyman. The National Front (BN) as usual turned it into a life-and-death poll and the Opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), though it shot itself in the foot, took to their senses and campaigned as an underdog, with effect. UMNO, MCA and Gerakan, more than ther common opponent, were disorganised that a concerted campaign was not possible. The deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, manfully soldiered on, but if this campaigned proved anything, it was how disorganised BN was where it mattered.

The BN had problems with the two main communities -- the Malays and the Chinese -- and its UMNO election team -- so large it had about two for every Malay voter -- could not weave its monetary magic in Ketari, as it did in Indera Kayangan where it forced its way into houses and prevented the opposition from coming anywhere close. If it attempted this in Ketari, bloodshed could have resulted. Even Janda Baik, where Kuala Lumpur's elita have their weekend homes, is so riddled with PAS influence that UMNO had a tough time there. This technically are elections offences, but not, it seems, if the BN commits them. There is a provision which makes it an offence to prevent campaigners from persuading voters to vote for its candidate.

The Elections Commission is a sinecure for retired civil servants, only to nod when told to, and whose tenure would be shortened if they have ideas beyond their station. When it should be the Elections Commission which should take the lead in legislation to amend the elections laws, in Malaysia it is the Government. In other words, it has the unfettered right to amend the laws so it would continue in power for as long as there are elections.

So, when the new amendments to the elections laws were announced amidst the campaign, it was more a warning to the Opposition that if they continued to get the support of the people, they should face more official harrassment and pressures than they now have. One scandal is the fortnight campaigning for an election suddenly announced. This is usually done after the BN have made all preparations for its campaign, leaving the Opposition to flounder. But the opposition learned to live with this, and the new amendments come when these restrictions affect the BN more than its electoral opponents. Malaysian elections do not debate issues. The opposition raises them, but the BN ignores them, and concentrate on irrelevancies, often resorting to personal attacks as the campaign winds down.

Ketari is a watershed. It reveals the BN's internal weaknesses, its racial divide within and between each other, an electorate not prepared to accept BN statements at face value. The BN writ does not hold sway in many a constituency, and tens of millions of ringgit must be spent to get what it wants. Hence the new amendments to the elections law. The electoral deposit is quadrupled to RM20,000 for parliamentary candidates, half that for state assembly candidates, with more restrictions on what candidates can discuss with the threat of jail, fine and loss of civic rights for years after. Malaysia has, like Singapore, decided to kill the Opposition by onerous monetary conditions; though it has not reached Singapore's penchant to sue opposition candidates for libel to tell those who join the Opposition of the dangers facing them if they stood for elections.

Election laws are tightened when BN loses ground to reveal a governing party so insecure as to travel an authoritarian route to hold on to power. It can do this because the West looks upon Malaysia, as once on Zimbabwe, as a democratic beacon for the superficial modes of democracy to ignore the undemocratic base on which it stands on. And it would address this only when its favourite opponent against the dictator it encouraged is caught in the trap it helped set.

In 1964, when I first voted, ninety days separated nomination day and polling day; today, it is a fortnight at best. Election rallies were the norm, and government leaders, from the prime minsiter down, went on the hustings, replying to opposition charges, taking them to task, and allowing them to be heckled by the crowd. A give-and-take rarely seen since, for in the aftermath of the 1969 racial riots, the country was put into a state of emergency and the rights deliberately reduced so campaigns are since banned. The BN raises security concerns when it should not; the police come in to impose conditions it should not; the onerous conditions laid on for opposition to hold their 'ceremah', confined to any covered space, and the police habit to allow or reject it at the last minute, keeps them on tenterhooks.

The old days can never come again. The BN is in difficulty today because its dominant UMNO cannot wean the Malay back. UMNO has the political leadership of the Malays, but not its cultural. That gets worse by the day, so long as the humiliation of the jailed former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, is not erased. UMNO insists it would ensure he would not ever return to power. That is possible, indeed even probable. He is confined to a wheel chair, his neck in a collar, his back so wrought in pain, that it is doubtful if he would ever be normal again.

The BN decided to make an example of him, to tell him a prisoner has no rights, but it is four years since he was detained, and it cannot wean back the Malay. It probably never could. The one option it has: to wean him back into UMNO, make him the next prime minister, it would never agree. Just a hint of that led to a threat on the prime minister's life, possibly from UMNO members who could not survive if he became prime minister. UMNO and BN believe they can overcome it if the election rules are tightened.

So, in the aftermath of Ketari, BN and UMNO see defeat staring in its face. Not in Ketari, or in the byelections to come, or even at the next general elections, but in the long term. A sensible, introspective UMNO leader told me he thought UMNO now has a greater past than a future. "Every day Anwar stays in jail, the worse for UMNO." When defeat is inevitable in many a Commonwealth country, the first move is to amend the constitution or elections laws so it would be returned however serious the opposition ranged against it. When that is challenged or not possible, then one-man rule or one-party rule is constitutionally enshrined.

It matters not who is returned in Ketari. It is a handicap to whoever is. For BN, a byelection would bleed it more than it wants to: a byelection sets it back tens of millions of ringgit. For DAP, after spurning the Barisan Alternatif, it found it could not do without them. As it happened, Pahang Keadilan and Pahang PAS helped it out, but not the national leadership. Neither DAP nor the BA have a policy on byelections. It should have been to bleed the BN with each, a win a bonus. Instead, it pushes ahead for victory as its first aim. That makes it easy for BN to run rings around the Opposition. So it does. Whoever is returned tonight. If the Opposition cannot get together, it might as well give up the ghost.

M.G.G. Pillai