(The Sun) Batu Talam election reinforces need for electoral reforms

Jacqueline Ann Surin

PETALING JAYA (Jan 30, 2007): The recently-concluded Batu Talam by-election has reinforced the need for electoral reforms, a PhD researcher on elections said.
Monash University Malaysia lecturer Wong Chin Huat said PAS’s and Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s grounds for boycotting the election remain justified.
Citing the high-profile campaign and enormous Barisan Nasional (BN) machinery used for 13 days from nomination to polling, he also said it was inconceivable that the BN candidate’s campaign expenses was capped at RM100,000, as stipulated in the Election Offences Act.

“The by-election clearly demonstrated the lack of proper controls of campaign opportunities and use of resources,” Wong, who has taken part in a Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia election project and is co-editing a book on the 2004 general election, said in an interview.
He is also reading his PhD at Essex University on electoral system and its impact on party system in West Malaysia from 1982 to 2004.
“The election can be likened to an interview by the Batu Talam people to choose the candidate they want to represent them at the state assembly,” Wong said.
“One candidate used his state and federal bosses to help him distort the judgment of voters. This is unfair.”
He said that when extra resources were poured into a constituency because of an election, other constituencies would lose out since the decision was politically-motivated and not economically-rational.
“Promises of development funding during the campaign period should be made illegal,” Wong said.
On Jan 26, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) also called on the Election Commission (EC) to investigate Entrepreneurial and Cooperative Development Minister Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin for exerting “undue influence” for his comments after announcing that 2,113 members from seven Batu Talam cooperatives had pledged to vote in the by-election.
Khaled was reported on Jan 23 as saying there was a need for “strong rapport between the government and the cooperatives” to ensure all plans were carried out smoothly.
Wong said it was also impossible to ascertain exactly how much BN candidate Abdul Aziz Mat Kiram, who thrashed independent candidate Ng Chee Pang, spent on his campaign.
“The law does not have a proper mechanism to monitor total expenses,” he noted, explaining that “donated monies” and “volunteer work” are often used to deflate how much was exactly spent. Party expenses are also not accounted for, he added.
He noted that the BN candidate could not spend more than RM7,700 a day over the 13 days of campaigning (including polling day) if he was to be within the law.
“But the nomination itself saw 2,000 supporters and hundreds of cars. Could the BN mobilisation itself cost less than RM100,000 or RM50 per head?” he asked.
Wong said the EC has not responded to calls to revise the law so that all expenses, including donations, be accounted for.
On another matter, he said it was misleading for the BN to use its increased majority (from 2,761 votes in the 2004 elections to 5,857 votes in this election), to argue that there was increased confidence and support for the ruling coalition (see chart).
“The majority figure represents the difference in votes between the winner and the runner-up. If votes are split or some people choose not to vote, then the majority will tend to be larger,” he said.
Wong noted that a more accurate figure to look at was the number of votes the BN actually garnered this year compared to 2004, which increased by 862 votes.
Of the estimated 2,234 PAS supporters in 2004 who did not support the independent candidate this time, 1,225 (or 54.83%) who did not turn up possibly boycotted the by-election while 862 or 38.59% turned to the BN.
“Only 40% of PAS supporters turned to the BN despite the coalition’s huge election machinery and the under-preparation of the frivolous, independent candidate,” Wong said.
He conceded that the lower voter turnout could be because of the smaller electoral roll for the constituency and the fact that BN supporters did not come out to vote because they were confident of BN’s victory.
“But, in the 2004 elections, it was also a clear win for the BN and yet, more voters turned up,” he said, noting that the boycott had had a moderate impact with up to 1,225 voters potentially not turning up in support of it.
Wong said the BN could only declare it had increased support if the constituency was a marginal seat and not a BN stronghold, and if its opponent was not a frivolous one like Ng.