For a responsible caretaker gov't

Ahmad Fitri Yusof | Feb 27, 08 (Malaysiakini)
Competitive election under democratic principle requires a level playing field between political players. All political parties must be deemed equal and on the same footing during the electoral process.
Leaders of the ruling party are considered to have given up executive authority, once Parliament is dissolved. Even if they retain the post, they do not have the same authority.
And, as members of a caretaker government, they must exercise their power cautiously with due process of law.
Without periodic elections, Malaysian political system would be quite similar to a one-party system, where the ruling party has absolute power over state affairs, as in China (Communist Party of China), Cuba (Communist Party of Cuba), North Korea (Korean Workers’ Party) and Syria (Baath Party). Sometime such single-party states also conduct elections merely to camouflage their authoritarian rule, as happen in Iraq during the Baath Party rule (1954-2003).
In Malaysia, a precise term to explain the political system would be ‘soft authoritarianism’ or ‘dominant party system’. This is because the opposition is not given adequate democratic space to explain policies and opinions.
Over the last 50 years, the government has introduced various draconian laws to restrict the freedoms of expression, association and assembly. It has also used various mechanisms such as gerrymandering, first-past-the-post electoral system, media control and detention without trial to limit opposition liberty.
There are at least three reasons why we need responsible caretaker government with limited powers:
• With the dissolution of Parliament, the Executive cannot be held accountable for its decisions in the normal manner.
• Every general election carries the possibility of a change of government.
• All contesting parties should enjoy equal access to public property and the media, as well as equal treatment by the electoral management body.
Rules for caretaker
The position of public service is unchanged by the dissolution of the Parliament, as the position of civil servants does not rely on the existence of Parliment or political appointees. As such, during the caretaker period, ordinary business of government continues.
The position of the prime minister and the cabinet is different. During the caretaker period, they are not allowed to make major policy decisions that are likely to commit an incoming government; make significant appointments; or enter into major contracts or undertakings.
Leaders of government and ruling parties must avoid attending official functions that give an unfair political advantage. The ruling party and its candidates cannot use or organise government functions such as distribution of scholarships to get political advantage; or use government premises as operation centres, or public assets such as canopies and tents.
If the ruling party is allowed to rent stadiums, schools, multipurpose halls or other public premises for party operations or campaign activities, then opposition parties should have an equal right to use these facilities.
Furthermore, the ruling party and its leaders cannot:
• direct civil servants to work for their political agenda or to attend political gatherings, even if these are held under the banner of government agencies;
• use government machinery, including personnel and equipment of the information department, for partisan political propaganda; or intelligent agencies (such as Military Intelligent Unit, National Security Division or Special Branch to gain information about rival political parties and trends of voters or other information of political interest;
• use the executive positions to attract political sponsors for electoral expenditures; or
• use government funds for political advertisements during the campaign period – this includes any advertisement in flyers, billboards, posters, banners and balloons or special column or space in newspapers, magazines, television, radio or Internet.
The government and its agencies and government-linked companies must not declare a special bonus for government servants or extraordinarily high dividends to shareholders of public funds like Tabung Haji or Lembaga Tabung Angkatan Tentera during an electoral campaign.
In addition, the government-owned media must comply with these guidelines:
• Exercise fair reporting by observing universal journalism ethics and standards based on the principles of truthfulness, accuracy and impartiality;
• No partisan political propaganda except in specified space which is given equally to all contesting parties; and
• No political censorship, unfair government advantage and unequal access during the campaign period (based on UN Centre for Human Rights in ‘Handbook on Human Rights and Election’).
Fair media access implies not only equality of time and space allotted, but also attention to the hour of broadcasting (i.e. prime-time versus late broadcasting).
However, it appears that almost all these guidelines have been breached by Barisan Nasional leaders. So why do they still claim to the world that they conduct free and fair elections?
AHMAD FITRI YUSOF is research fellow with Akademi Kajian Kota, a think-tank dedicated to social, economic and political issues in Malaysia.