General Elections and the Common Good

CANews (February 2008 issue) spoke with Chairman of election monitor Malaysians for Free and Fair Election (MAFREL), Abd Malek Hussin and sought his views on “General Elections and the Common Good”.

What are the aims and objectives of Mafrel?
Mafrel was formed in 2003, before the 11th General Election (GE). We share 3 common objectives:
i) to promote democracy and human rights
ii) to promote and enhance free and fair elections
iii) election monitoring to contribute to the democratisation process – submitting proposals to improve the election process.
In that case does not BERSIH also fulfill your aims or objectives?
Bersih is a coalition of political parties and NGOs. Mafrel is non-partisan – we are not affiliated with any political party. Since we conduct election observation in line with international norms and practices, we have to be seen to be independent, unbiased and non-partisan, though we may share with Bersih positive views of promoting clean and fair elections.

What is your opinion of our General Elections? Give reasons for your opinion.

Elections have been held even before Merdeka. Since Merdeka we have had eleven GEs. In recent times, Mafrel observed five elections: by-elections of Pengkalan Pasir in Kelantan, Batu Talam in Pahang, Machap in Melaka, Ijok in Selangor and the state election of Sarawak.
On the basis of our observations, a crucial issue that we are worried about – although elections are deemed to be quite free, in terms of administrative aspects per se, ie: nomination of candidates, polling, counting and tallying processes, there is much left to be desired on the fundamental issues of elections – whether we have a ‘level playing field’, where media coverage especially, is concerned.
When you speak about ‘a level playing field’ do you mean equal air and press time should be accorded to all parties?
In Malaysia we have public and private funded media. Public funded media as the name suggests is funded by our taxpayer’s money regardless of political affiliation. Public broadcast stations and press should give at least some if not equal access to all political parties.
Private media organisations should allow all political parties to place advertisements in a fair and equitable manner. These media should also ensure objective reporting during the election campaigns.
In Sri Lanka the EC has been empowered to monitor the media to ensure they report in a non-paritisan, unbiased manner. The EC is even empowered to shut down any media organisation that fails to provide fair access to all political parties.
If the Opposition were given access to mainstream media and press would that not give them an opportunity to make biased and unsubstantiated allegations against the government and mislead and confuse the rakyat? Your comments.
The presumption that the Opposition will mislead the rakyat with unsubstantiated allegations should never be the basis of denying them a legitimate right to media access. We’re talking about international norms here.
If voters have the free will and access to information in order for them to make informed choices, any ‘unsubstantiated allegations’ will be seen and identified as such and so disregarded by an informed voter.
Is there a possibility that a candidate, under the guise of ‘freedom’, tells lies in order to swing votes in his/her favour?
Hypocrisy in elections is a fact – making empty promises, deriding their opponents and outright lying. But one must ask, should these liars deserve to be “Yang Berhormat” (The Honourable) and be given a seat in Parliament? One will question, how could this kind of person firstly be fielded as a candidate and get elected into Parliament? Liars do not deserve to be where they are, yet the voters put them where they are.
There are also cases of propaganda dissemination – dirty tactics to ensure their win: political deception, reverse psychology. There should be some ethical guidelines drawn up to ensure that such not allowed in the media.
When a candidate makes an allegation against his/her opponent, the opponent should be given space to address and rebut the allegation. Here only the ruling party’s media both public and private are so powerful and un-objective.
The Opposition media, although less powerful, is no better. Both sides make harsh criticism in their respective media without allowing the other side of the story, but at the end of the day, the one who has greater clout wins the propaganda war. Politics here is extremely partisan.

This would suggest that neither side is interested in the common good, only their political survival.

This is the result of the British Westminster-style democracy, First Past The Post constituency elections, Her Majesty’s Government and her loyal Opposition. This is the conservative approach to democracy.
The progressive approach would be proportionate representation (in Parliament) – either absolute proportionate representation or mixed representation where candidates are not merely elected on the basis of constituency.
A proportionate representation system is highly participatory – no notion of Government party and Opposition party as what post-Suharto Indonesia, for example, has. No partisan, adversarial politics of government vs. opposition.
Some say that ‘proportionate representation’ would create stagnation in Parliament. ‘First past the post’ creates majority therefore provides greater expediency in decision-making. There is nothing wrong with the present Westminster-style system, the only flaw lies with the representatives in Parliament – your comments.
The [Parliamentary] system here is seriously flawed in that it disallows opposing views and discussions. When you demonise the culture of public debate, you promote a culture of oppression. This oppression only leads to dictatorship, despotism and erosion of democracy, despite having elections where people go to vote for five minutes every five years.
Debate is the cornerstone of democracy. Where are we heading if our system is touted as a democracy but we do not allow expressions of dissent and differing of opinions?

An extreme of democracy is majority tyranny. The common good would provide for minority rights – your comments.

Democracy is not about majoritism. By definition, democracy means government of the people, for the people, by the people. Not of, by and for the majority. It is about sharing and interaction between majority and minority. The problem here is of extreme partisanship and policies which only favour the majority.
Some say the racial and religious diversity here is a problem and do not see it as hikmah (a blessing). Heaven is multi-racial, cultural, religious and faceted. It can also become hell. Democracy is not about majority supremacy.
Secondly, the issue of hegemony and arrogance. We can have minority arrogance, unelected dictators who can run riot. Here, because of our flawed democratic process we are not able to redress these effectively and expediently. To address this we need voter education and empowerment, particularly the understanding of ethnic and religious issues.

It has been said that re-delineation is engineered for the benefit of the ruling party. Your comments?

Constituencies may need re-delineation every ten years after the population census. There are also provisions for the EC to propose for re-delineation.
During the first GE of 1955 there were 52 constituencies. In 1959 the EC proposed an increase to 104. Before the 1964 election the Tunku Abdul Rahman government directed the EC to further increase the number of constituencies. The EC which was then led by the late Mustapha Albakri, refused. The government forced him to resign.
In later years, this increase in constituencies has led to allegations of gerrymandering and the subsequent questions as to the impartiality of the EC. In 2004 there were serious allegations of the contamination of electoral rolls in Terengganu, allegations of flaws in the elections process in Selangor. Recently in Sabah there were allegations that illegal aliens were being registered as voters.
These allegations will be a never-ending problem and can only be addressed if and only if we have a truly independent and impartial EC.

Where does gerrymandering come in?

In a democracy, we have the concept of ‘universal franchise’ – one person one vote. Here, we have constituencies with more than 70,000 voters for one parliamentary seat (Seputih), and another with slightly more than 5,000 voters for one seat (Putrajaya). This disparity runs counter to the notion of universal franchise.
Seputih clearly needs to be re-delineated into at least two constituencies, but it is not. Seputih deserves another MP but they are being denied this. Putrajaya only needs 2,540 of its voters to get an MP elected. The principles of equality are clearly absent. Seputih and many other constituencies are seriously under-represented, while Putrajaya is over-represented.
At least 20 constituencies have crossed the national quotient of 15%; and there are more than 60 constituencies which are down far below the 15% mark – and most of these are BN-held seats.
The Reid Commission who promulgated our Federal Constitution suggested for a formula to delineation: the National Quotient – where the national average of constituents per constituency is calculated, and no constituency can have more or less than 15% of this national average.
In every re-delineation exercise, population increases have to be accounted for and constituency lines re-drawn to maintain this 15%+- quotient.
Many countries, with Westminster-style democracies have this system, but after 1964, we have eliminated this system here in the name of ‘national security’!
What about the use of ‘the fear factor’ – threat to national security, economic collapse, the May 13 spectre, racial/religious wars – what do you think of parties who use this?
The politicians have implanted and inculcated in us a fear of losing peace and prosperity if we don’t vote for them, but do not inculcate in themselves a fear of God when going about soliciting our votes.
Nabi Muhammad enumerated the signs of munafiq (hypocrite) – lying and breaking promises. Politicians who are God-fearing will never be munafiq. Voters are only concerned with governance and material return but never about the morality and values of those we elect into Parliament.
Voters must now seek out and vote God-fearing candidates who stand for good governance, clear separation of powers between the three arms of government and candidates who promote transparency and accountability to the people.

What changes, if any, would you like to make to our electoral laws?

Voters have to have the collective will to press for changes for the good of the country. If there are to be any changes to election laws, it is promulgating a “Free and Fair Elections Act”. We have the Election Act, Election Offences Act, Elections Regulations but no statute upholding the notion of free and fair elections, we badly need one, the voters deserve one.
In post-Marcos Philippines, they have such an Act – the provisions are to ensure a ‘level playing field’: access to media. In Indonesia there is a Presidential decree requiring international election observers. In Thailand, their Constitution has been amended to ensure impartiality and independence of their Election Commission (EC). Bangladesh has also amended its Constitution to ensure that the EC is presided by a sitting Judge. This also applies to India and Pakistan.
If Mafrel were asked to prepare practical guide for the electorate to vote for the common good, what would you include in this guide?
I would emphasise two issues:
i) Voting based on free will with no coercion – here there are elements of coercion, intimidation and reprisal. For example in the Sarawak GE, a constituency was won by the Opposition only to receive reprisals from the Federal government warning them that there will be no development funding henceforth.
ii) Voters must vote based on informed choices. Here, because of the lack of media coverage of the Opposition and propaganda in the mainstream press, voters do not have proper information, so cannot make an informed choice.
These two factors can ensure the common good.