(Malaysiakini) The war for electoral reform

Dzulkifli Ahmad
Feb 14, 07

 

 

Granted Barisan Nasional won the Batu Talam by-election. It came as no surprise at all. None expected otherwise. But are they still euphoric about their ‘landslide victory’? Not visibly. All attempts at exhibiting jubilation fizzled out in less than a week.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s confession of not finding the inspiration for the the general election as yet, only days after Batu Talam’s ‘thumping victory’, spoke volumes of how insignificant Batu Talam was, in light of the bigger picture of national politics.

He knew they had only won a ‘skirmish’ in a grossly asymmetrical fight. But the real war is his utmost concern. He is not unaware of the many looming obstacles that dangerously lie ahead.
I’m not about to ‘spin’ for the opposition. Writings about Batu Talam abound. While none could serve as a post-mortem, the sum total of the various efforts may amount to it. While not privy to the actual score-sheet to date, any detailed attempt at number crunching as to see various patterns of voting would be academic and perhaps presumptuous.
I would however pen down some pertinent observations as objective as humanly possible, before dwelling to the central subject of my piece.
The mainstream media made a big deal of the increase in BN’s majority from 2,761 in 2004 to 5,857 in the by-election (2007). This is arguably misplaced. It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that attempts at using this figure to argue that there is now an increased support and confidence in the BN government or the premier, actually smacks of desperation or worse still plain ignorance.
The majority represents the difference between votes obtained by both the winner and loser. Competing against an unknown 22 year-old independent candidate who hardly posed any challenge to the BN is surely nothing to shout about. Descending the entire ‘fire-power’ of the BN government and brutally abusing the ‘code of ethics’ doesn’t speak well of a supposedly strong and vibrant ruling government.
So blatant was the violation that the underdog threatened ‘to stop campaigning in the by-election unless the Election Commission (EC) penalized and disqualified the BN candidate’. The novice politician realised the predicament of opposition candidates. But what he actually faced was only a whimper of the actual agony and suffering sustained by opposition parties for more than two decades now.
Powerless to act

True to form, the EC said it was powerless to act. Its open admission to independent candidate Ng Chee Pang that the ‘code of ethics’ is only a guideline which is not enforceable is disgraceful and shocking to many that never knew the fact.
That said, I would repeat that the better indicator for increase of confidence in the government is more appropriately the increase of votes and not majority. For all the ‘investments’ in Batu Talam, estimated to be in the millions including the projects granted by at least five ministries to the tune of almost RM70 million, what could then be the price of the extra 862 votes? A whooping (guestimate) price to the tune of RM81,000 per vote. Does that make business or political sense Mr Prime Minister and Mr Deputy Prime Minister?
This is precisely why the independent candidate’s father-cum-campaign manager Kwi Ling was happy ad proud despite his son losing his deposit.
“We’ve lost RM5,000 as deposit but my son brought to Batu Talam RM100 million” he quipped.
Little wonder why the DPM was frantic to get to 90% turnout when he first reprimanded his machinery and the Batu Talam voters. He later reduced it 80%. What did he finally get? He grudgingly received 67%, a reduction of almost 10%, from the 2004 general election (GE) of 76%.
Could one surmise this as commensurate to his diminishing political clout given his ‘elegant silence’ on the current high profile murder case involving a close associate?
Was Batu Talam similarly apprehensive of him after the relentless attack by the opposition leader in parliament on the ‘much embezzled’ military procurement? Far-fetched perhaps.
For the record, 3,394 did not come out to vote in the last by-election, while 2,831 did not in the GE 2004, hence an increase of 563 voters. This was after 341 voters (10,866-10,525) were dropped from the electoral list, presumably dead voters as claimed by the EC. The by-election saw an increase of 385 spoilt votes against a baseline of 238 in GE 2004 and 239 spoilt votes in GE 1999. Whatever one wants to make of this is open-ended but the resentment and defiance are evidently on the upbeat to say the least.
Managing timing
Strategically, the choice of Batu Talam by-election as the launching ground to mount a protracted national campaign on electoral reform could not be better, save for the fact that it is a rural constituency. Anticipating GE to be before the end of the year, a boycott campaign just now bites more. Earlier or later may not be as timely. Politics is not only about ‘managing perception’ but equally of ‘managing timing’. This was almost a JIT –‘Just in Time’ management philosophy of sorts.
After the intense protest following the worst election ever in the history of Malaysian democratic process on March 21, 2004, Bersih, a joint committee of 26 NGOs and five opposition political parties was officially launched in November 2006, to undertake electoral reform in Malaysia. Bersih stands for the Coalition for Clean and Fair Election.
GE 2004 saw irregularity, incompetence, gerrymandering and downright fraud. Memorandums were submitted to the Yang di-Pertuan Agung and Suhakam while 25 petitions were submitted by opposition candidates to the court. In the wake of the fierce resentment, the EC chairperson openly consented and was reported by the media as confessing to the need of setting up an independent commission. Later on, he did his usual round about turn after being reprimanded by his political master.
On Nov 23, Bersih sent a strong memorandum to the premier and EC demanding for immediate reform on at least three urgent short-term measures i.e. the use of indelible ink, the abolition of postal voting and the cleansing of the electoral role. The three-point demand is essentially to address and mitigate phantom voters. To date, neither the EC nor the PM have responded.
Bersih’s allegation was strengthened and vindicated by the EC chairperson’s call for a reform of the outdated election laws and regulations. It was almost like divine intervention! His six-point elaboration perfectly explained the reasons why PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat boycotted the by-election.
Batu Talam being a rural constituency, admittedly is less accessible and amenable to the message of electoral reform. The agenda of reform is not their cup of tea as opposed to bread and butter issues. It nonetheless was the launching pad for the opposition to press for further electoral reform.
Understandably, the Batu Talam results, though encouraging enough, fall short of delivering the required shot-in-the-arm for the reform movement. It would have been a different scenario had the battle been in a more urban or semi-urban seat. Why? It is here that I would like to highlight the need for the ‘reformers’ to see the obstacles and challenges ahead.
Voters must understand

I will quote a very pertinent observation from all three resource persons in a recent workshop conducted locally. Prof Peter Hack of Hungary, a former Hungarian parliamentarian, Prof Gumay of Centre for Electoral Reform, Indonesia and Prof Yong-Ho Kim of South Korea who is also the Chairman of the Promotion Council for Introducing E-voting system in South Korea, who now enjoy healthy democracy in their respective countries. The efforts were painstaking but the people were relentless. They are truly deserving of reform.
To quote them: “No amount of advocating for reform will come to fruition until voters themselves understand why the current system and practices are bad for all Malaysians.”. Hence, they emphasized: “Reform must have voters at the centre, and reformers must figure out what you want to say and why it is relevant to all Malaysians.”
The opposition parties working within Bersih must strategise for a comprehensive protracted ‘action plan’ to carry this message of reform nationwide. The tagline and battle-cry of ‘reform’ must resonate well with the entire spectrum and segments of the electorate in urban, suburban and even rural constituencies before we could hope to witness the wave for electoral reform.
The BN may have won the battle in Batu Talam, but the ‘reformers’ with the support of the rakyat are resolute on winning the war!

 

Dr Dzulkifli Ahmad is Director, PAS Research Centre.