Comment: Enough time to convince voters

By Syed Nadzri
15 February, 2008
JUST a day after parliament was dissolved, opposition parties are already left with one issue less to harp on in this general election. The short campaign period, previously a sore point that provided the extra ammunition to be fired at the government, should no longer be so this time around following the Election Commission’s announcement yesterday.
It will be a 13-day campaign period – or a hugely comfortable 24 days if you count from the day parliament was dissolved on Wednesday – before Polling Day on March 8. And this is the longest official campaign period in the seven general elections in the country since 1982.
Coming not long after a series of street demonstrations and the playing up of inflammatory issues by certain parties, this is by any measure a generous concession on the part of the government.
And blocs such as Malaysians for Free and Fair Elections and Bersih should be pleased with the gesture.
The elections in 1986, 1990 and 1995, all only had 10 days between Nomination Day and polling, while it was nine days in 1999 and eight days in 2004.
In 1995, parliamentary opposition leader and DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang, with nine general elections behind him so far, made known his displeasure at the short period and repeated several times that there should be at least two weeks to campaign.
“We would have liked to go house-to-house, and if we had a longer period, we could do that”, he was reported to have said then.
He has got his wish this time, although many others were supportive of a shorter duration as this, they argued, would reduce tension and would not be too taxing on resources and manpower.
The campaign period used to be very long in elections up to the watershed 1969 event – 35 days, even up to six weeks – where candidates and contesting parties would organise lively outdoor rallies to campaign.
And these functions would be preceded by all kinds of “opening acts” including magic shows, film shows and demonstrations by travelling medicine men.
An old-timer still remembers the days of the rapat umum, the old-fashioned outdoor rallies, at the Datuk Keramat Padang in Penang which “attracted thousands”.
He says those were no-holds-barred speeches which sometimes bordered on sedition.
“The only respite was at the intervals when we were treated to ubat cacing (deworming formula) promotions.”
Exactly. Long and unfettered campaigning can be unsettling, especially in potentially explosive situations all around Malaysia.
The two-week period this time, therefore, should be just right – the sticky middle ground for everyone.
A Parti Keadilan Rakyat campaign worker says it is better than before.
“To us, the longer the period, the better, as we can project our issues more effectively.”
A political observer notes that the campaign period this time does a lot to give the “fair play” effect.
“Of course, it is better to go for three weeks, but three weeks should be maximum because longer than that will be chaotic,” he adds.
But honestly, to a politically-charged country like Malaysia, does it really make a difference whether it is 10 days, two weeks or three weeks?
Campaigning in various forms, after all, had already begun in all earnest since last year.