Independent bodies to keep an eye on things

16 February, 2008
For the first time in 12 general elections, voters will be observed by an accredited domestic body at the polling stations while another group tracks candidates’ finances, writes SHANNON TEOH. WHEN you find yourself at the polls next month, don’t be alarmed if there are other people besides election workers keeping a watchful eye on you.
The Election Comission (EC) has opened up, officially accrediting an independent domestic body to observe the general election up close.
Whether it’s on polling day or at countless ceramah, looking through electoral rolls or recounts, Malaysians For Free and Fair Elections (Mafrel) will be entrusted to sniff out anything fishy.
The move, however, will not come without certain restrictions. Mafrel chairman Abdul Malek Hussin is in the midst of discussing the EC’s 16-point proposal with conditions for observation.
For the most part, says the activist and former Internal Security Act detainee, it meets the International Principle On Election Observations and Code of Conduct For Election Observers launched by the United Nations in October 2005.
“We have been given more leeway for this election compared with the (Machap, Ijok) by-elections we’ve observed previously,” said Abdul Malek, pointing to the permission granted for dynamic observers who can move between polling centres and even constituencies, instead of just being static observers at polling stations.
Established in 2003 to “conduct non-partisan election observation”, Mafrel’s first project was to filter through the electoral roll of the 2004 general election for discrepancies (read “phantom voters”) before moving on to a physical presence at the by-elections of Pengkalan Pasir, Batu Talam, Machap and Ijok as well as the Sarawak state elections of 2006.
Mafrel began training its observers a month ago, relying solely on foreign donations. According to Abdul Malek, the sum totalled US$25,000 (RM81,000) and while they’ve identified 60 parliamentary “hot” seats, the shortfall is forcing them to reduce their observations to fewer seats.
They will proceed to monitor the election campaign on the ground — nominations and preparation of the electoral rolls — as well as access to media and money politics.
“It is not a question of whether this party will get enough hours of airtime or that party will be able to have public rallies.
“Those are party interests. Our objective is for voters to be able to make an informed choice and empower their right to a free and fair election,” Abdul Malek said.
While Mafrel has gone from strength to strength, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Malaysian and International Studies’ (Ikmas) official presence at the 2001 Sarawak state elections was a case of first and only.
Dr Mavis Puthucheary was associate fellow and leader of Ikmas’ election study project and said their objective was an academic one, stressing that while their 2001 observation was informative, their studies with a broader scope were also of importance.
Puthucheary felt that an independent domestic election observer offered stature and civic trust to the election process and the EC should not just accept but encourage observers by providing support.
However, she said, if the EC were keen to look for endorsement, they should invite foreign observers, such as the Commowealth mission that was present in 1990 — the last time an independent body had observed a general election here.
“However, those that come in for just the election day won’t be able to identify anything beyond blatant vote-rigging,” said Abdul Malek.
“You might even call them election tourists on a junket. This leads to an endorsement which can be counter-productive.”
Transparency International Malaysia (TIM) will also track the polls.
Inspired by Transparency International’s initiative in Latin America in 2006 called Crinis, which monitored election spending in eight countries, the local chapter had discussions with the EC and other non-partisan non-government organisations to collaborate on support efforts to ensure clean and fair elections.
“The EC and the government cannot do it all on their own. Using our resources and technology drawn from our HQ in Berlin and elsewhere around the world, we will try to ensure an efficient polling system,” said TIM president, Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam.
This will be TIM’s first election and they will be consulting and gathering information on equitable media space, campaign funding and money politics to generate a formal report that will influence indices on integrity that TI internationally releases.
Meanwhile, with a name like the Coalition For Free and Fair Elections, Bersih could have been expected to look out for any irregularities in the coming elections. But steering committee member Sivarasa Rasiah said it would not be doing so as the body had politically aligned members.
He, for example, is Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice-president.
“We’re an advocacy body for electoral reforms and so if there are any findings (of irregularities) then we will respond,” he said.
“If we observe anything we feel is unjust, we will raise it but it won’t be appropriate for us to formally monitor the elections.”
Many of the members will run for the elections themselves.
“That’s why whatever we needed to do had to be done before the election period,” he said.