The Opposition boycott of the Batu Talam by-election could signify an important turning point in Malaysia’s electoral history, coupled as it is with statements by the chairman of the Election Commission that cast doubt upon the fairness of the electoral process.
Elections are important. They are the cornerstone of power and legitimacy in this country. The winning of elections bestows upon the winning party (or parties) almost untrammelled power, and the legitimate exercise of this power has been justified on the grounds that the people have made their choice. This was the case even after the almost-defeat of Barisan Nasional (BN) in the 1999 General Election, when the Government came away with 56% of the vote. They won more than three-quarters of the seats, but the widespread discontent with BN was evident. And this was given the numerous concerns that the Opposition raised – from access to the media to the persistent problem of phantom voters. The disparity in 2004 was even greater, with 64% of the votes yielding 90% of the seats for the BN.
And here lies the problem. There is a major disconnect between the way Malaysians vote and the number of seats won by the contesting parties.
This is not a problem for the Opposition, or at least it is not just a problem for the Opposition, it is a problem involving at least a third of the electorate who are practically disenfranchised by our electoral system. Especially when the marginal role given the Opposition is taken into account – starting with their lack of access to public money, continuing through their neglected role in the legislative process and culminating in the disregarded check and balance function of Parliament(s) in Malaysia more generally. Occassional disenfranchisement of voters can be accommodated. But this is around a third of Malaysian voters, let’s say, who have never had their voices heard in the national legislature, not even enough to prevent amendments to the Constitution.
Added to this is the problem that the elected Government is shielded by democracy and by the electoral process itself from being responsive to the needs of the people. Wanting a change of government, which is a legitimate aim (the sole aim really of the Opposition!) is seen as a crime. Executive power is exercised with few checks and balances, dissent is seen as seditious and the media kept on a tight rein.
The result of this can be a disenchantment with the electoral process, and with democracy itself. If democratic systems and our electoral processes do not result in a leadership that is responsive to the needs of the people, then people will find attempt other ways of filling these needs. A healthy development in this is the formation of “Bersih”, a coalition for electoral reform.
Less healthily, however, there is an opting out of society, as seen by high crime rates, juvenile delinquency and a lack of respect for the institutions of the State. An example of the latter was the case of Mat Rempits throwing stones at police officers, but less striking examples include the numerous cases where civilians have broken the law apprehending criminals, such as beating up snatch theives.
The Opposition boycott of the Batu Talam by-election should be seen in this light. But the problems that the Oppostion are highlighting through this boycott are not only problems for the Opposition. They’re a problem for the government as well. When the Prime Minister complains of lack of assistance from the people in implementing his plans, when the police are shown little respect, when corruption takes place, these are all signs that people do not recognise the government as being their government. They are not taking ownership over the institutions and policies of the government. And they are illustrating dissatisfaction, disenfranchisement in myriad small ways.
The Opposition and the Election Commission Chairperson’s comments and actions are an opportunity for us to take stock of how are electoral system is working, how it is not working and to try and look at ways in which it can be improved. Regardless of political affiliation.
Sonia is the Executive Director of the Centre for Independent Journalism, holds a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and spends her time equally between writing, teaching and ranting. Comments: [email protected]
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