Rivals cry foul over election tactics of Malaysia's ruling coalition

04 March 2008
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) – If election results were a measure of popularity, Malaysia’s ruling coalition would be one of the most adored governments in the world.
But few believe popularity alone has kept the National Front in power continuously since independence in 1957.
Parliamentary elections on March 8 have once again fueled complaints that a subservient Election Commission, gerrymandering, vote fraud, a compliant media, misuse of government resources and massive vote buying gives the Front an unfair advantage.
The government «controls everything during election time,» said Mohammad Agus Yusoff, a political science professor at the National University of Malaysia. «This is why it’s very difficult for the opposition to win.
The head of the Election Commission rejects such accusations.
«Cheating has never been proven anywhere in this country,» said Chairman Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, who himself has been accused of being partial to the ruling coalition.
Regardless, the National Front is all but assured of remaining in power after this week’s poll, because it offers a sense of stability that many voters find comforting. But critics say the alleged election irregularities unfairly increase its margin of victory and make a mockery of democracy. The National Front has become institutionalized to such an extent, they say, that people no longer see the opposition as an alternative.
Opposition leaders say the Election Commission creatively draws election districts to favor the government, so the National Front wins far more seats than its percentage of the popular vote.
In the 2004 election, the National Front took 91 percent of the 219 parliamentary seats with only 64 percent of the popular vote.
«The election is far from a level playing field,» said Dzulkifli Ahmad, the chief political strategist of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. «We are really pushed to the wall.
Ramon Navaratnam, president of the Malaysian branch of Berlin-based anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, said such gerrymandering is his main concern.
«It shows weaknesses in the democracy as it doesn’t reflect the true aspirations of the people,» he said.
Activists also allege the electoral roll includes the names of thousands of deceased people. They suspect «phantom voters» use these names to cast ballots for the National Front, using fake identification documents.
Until late last year, as many as 31,000 people above the age of 107 were on the electoral roll, according to Bersih, a watchdog organization made up of opposition parties and some independent groups.
The Election Commission has deleted some names, but more than 8,600 people above 100 years old remain on the list, the commission says, adding it cannot remove a name unless it has proof that the person has died.
Sharmila Thuraisingam, a 35-year-old housewife in Kuala Lumpur, found out in 2004 that she was on the electoral roll in Kelantan state, even though she had never registered to vote.
«How are you going to ensure that no one votes on my behalf?» she said, adding that she complained to the Election Commission but is still listed in the northeastern Malaysian state this year.
Responding to critics, the commission has agreed to introduce a few reforms such as marking voters’ fingers with indelible ink to prevent people from voting more than once. But the measure is voluntary, so voters can refuse to have their fingers dyed.
The opposition also complains that media coverage is biased. Most newspapers and television stations are controlled by or closely linked to parties in the National Front.
The media often trumpet government achievements, especially during election season, while the opposition is portrayed as bumbling and hypocritical.
Abdul Rashid, the election commission’s head, acknowledges that «there are media bodies that take only one side,» but says the commission has no power to stop that.
Somsri Hananuntasuk, director of the Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections, said Malaysia needs to curb prejudiced media reports.
«There are so many things that need to be reformed,» she said. «There are no checks and balances. In any democracy, you have to have checks and balances.