Malaysia: Elections without representation

By Baradan Kuppusamy
Sep 20, 2007
KUALA LUMPUR – Political tension is rising in the run-up to Malaysia’s next general election as demands for free and fair polls made by a coalition of opposition political parties and civil-society groups are increasingly being met with violence by the ruling 13-party Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) coalition.

This month, police fired tear gas and shot at protesters, injuring two opposition supporters in the chest, while breaking up a massive opposition rally in Terengganu state, one of the few areas of Malaysia where the opposition and government are matched roughly equally in electoral strength.
The rally, organized on September 8 by BERSIH, an acronym for a coalition of five opposition political parties and 26 civil-society groups that means “clean” in the Malay language, was the biggest gathering held so far to demand reforms to the electoral system. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Malaysia’s largest political party and the leader of the BN coalition, has won all 11 general elections held since the country achieved independence in 1957.
BERSIH has been touring the country mobilizing public support for its reform cause ahead of next polls, which are widely expected to be called in November. Police responded with what demonstrators contend is excessive use of force, adding a new and violent dimension to Malaysia’s electoral politics.
“The use of such hard force and firing weapons, injuring opposition supporters, is unprecedented in recent history,” said parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang.
Police said the assembly did not have a proper permit and was therefore illegal, but opposition leaders have insisted on their right to peaceful assembly.
During the melee, the national flag was burned, an act the government-controlled mainstream electronic media have taken advantage of by showing the scene over and over again, in effect accusing opposition members of being unpatriotic – a serious accusation in a year when Malaysia is celebrating 50 years as an independent nation.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi himself accused the opposition parties of starting a riot to blame the government and discredit his National Front coalition. For their part, opposition leaders have charged that cleverly disguised “agents provocateurs” had burned the flag and put the blame on them.
“The incident strongly suggests that police harassment has reached new heights against gatherings deemed unfavorable to the government,” said de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in an interview this week with Malaysiakini, an independent online news agency. “This is cause for grave concern.”
The campaign for electoral reforms is a major effort by the long-suffering opposition political parties and civil-society leaders aimed at leveling the electoral playing field.
Among the changes they want is abolition of the so-called “first past the post” polling system, which was inherited from the departing British colonial authorities and allows the election winner with a simple majority to dominate Parliament.
Opposition political parties have historically garnered anywhere between 40% and 50% of the national vote, but always end up with a paltry number of seats in Parliament – as is currently the case. The combined opposition controls only 18 of the 219 seats, although their parties polled more than 40% of the national vote at the 2004 general elections.
“This is an outdated system that shuts out minorities, women and indigenous people … their voice is drowned out by majority rule,” said opposition politician Lim. “It does not reflect the national vote that [the] opposition won in the elections.
“With the outdated system, the government virtually gives itself a huge majority every election,” he said. “We have elections but not representative rule nor democratic practices – it is a camouflage. It is time major changes are made to the election system to make it truly representative.”
Other BERSIH demands include an end to gerrymandering of electoral constituencies that takes place once every 10 years and to make the Election Commission an independent authority, ending its alleged subservience to the ruling coalition.
Critics also want the government to allow in domestic and international election observers and to remove the discretionary powers given to the Registrar of Societies to deny the registration of new political parties for arbitrary reasons. An example of this perceived abuse of power pertains to the Socialist Party of Malaysia, which has been denied registration for more than a decade on grounds that it poses a threat to national security.
“We also want the high cash deposits for candidates to be reduced,” said Lim Guan Eng, secretary general of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the largest opposition party in Parliament. “It is ridiculous to impose high cash barriers for contesting and still claim we are a democracy. Such methods prevent poor people from seeking elected office, leaving the rich to dominate Parliament.” (The filing fee just to contest a parliamentary constituency in Malaysia is 8,000 ringgit, nearly US$2,300).
Another BERSIH demand is to increase the extremely short eight-day campaign period – arguably the shortest of any democracy in the world.
“Such a short campaign period is ridiculously inadequate to [persuade] voters to back the opposition,” said Sivarasah Rasiah, a human-rights lawyer and vice president of Anwar’s National People’s Party.
“On the other hand, the ruling coalition has all the advantages. It keeps the polls date secret but prepares heavily in the meantime and then springs a surprise by suddenly dissolving Parliament,” Rasiah said. “During the short, eight-day campaign period [the ruling coalition] unleashes the government machinery and mainstream media on us. This is unethical and a serious violation of democratic principles.
“Worse, the blitz is paid for by public resources that should rightly be also made available to us in equal measures,” Rasiah said. “While we are hounded, refused permits and shot at, they are free to assemble and preach directly and over the government-controlled mainstream media. It all makes for a sham election and democracy.”
Some election experts say the electoral roll itself is faulty, with the commission failing to remove dead voters and clean up what opposition party leaders claim are thousands of “phantom voters”.
“There is a need to completely revise and overhaul the electoral roll because it is heavily compromised,” said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of Suaram (Suara Rakyat Malaysia, or Voice of the Malaysian People), a leading human-rights organization and BERSIH member. “We need a roll that is clean [and] transparent and one that inspires confidence.”
So far the commission has conceded to one of BERSIH’s many demands – use of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting. But opposition political parties and other groups under the BERSIH umbrella are planning to up the ante of their campaign and set the stage for a major tussle with the ruling BN coalition by organizing a mammoth rally next month to press their case for reforms.