Malaysian elections: are they fair?

Thu Mar 6, 2008
Reuters – Malaysia’s electoral system will be on trial at the March 8 general election, thanks to a concerted campaign by opposition parties calling for reform.
They have joined human rights and free-speech advocates in a group called Bersih (Clean) to demand fairer electoral boundaries, cleaner electoral rolls and more even media coverage.
The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which has effectively governed since independence in 1957, says the system is fair and that the opposition is shifting the blame for its own failures.
Here are the main issues:
Voting boundaries are redrawn every eight years to account for population growth. The opposition says each exercise aims to break up pockets of support in their stronghold constituencies. The Election Commission denies this and says it allows all parties to register their complaints. But the opposition says the only way it can block changes to boundaries is to win one-third of seats in federal parliament and in the state assemblies. The last time it commanded a third of federal parliament was in 1969.
The opposition complains of unfair treatment and inadequate access to pro-government mainstream media. Television and newspapers are licensed and heavily influenced by the government, so opposition parties rely on internal newsletters and the Internet, which is not censored, to get their message out. But only a fifth of Malaysians have Internet access and just 4.5 percent broadband Internet, according to figures compiled by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission.
Nearly four in 10 voters cast their ballots for opposition parties in the last election in 2004, but that translated to an opposition tally of just 10 percent of seats in federal parliament. Bersih, the electoral-reform lobby group, wants Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system, virtually unchanged since it was inherited from the British after independence, to be overhauled, saying it supports Barisan Nasional’s continued dominance. Instead, Bersih wants mixed-member proportional voting where half of parliament is elected under the first-past-the-post system and the other half under proportional voting, which ensures smaller parties still get some representation.
Participation is also an issue: the minimum voting age is 21, but law expert Shad Saleem Faruqi, of Universiti Teknologi Mara, says this is outdated in an age of high literacy.
The government and opposition accuse each other of “shifting” voters — getting party supporters to change their addresses — so they can vote in other constituencies where more support is needed to ensure victory. Opposition parties say the commission has failed to tackle the problem. They also say electoral rolls are stuffed with “phantom voters” — the dead, non-citizens and voters with multiple registrations — but the commission strongly denies this. To address these concerns, the commission will for the first time use indelible ink to mark voters’ fingers as well as transparent ballot boxes on March 8.
A big opposition complaint, especially in poor, rural areas. No one has been caught red-handed but the government usually says handing out cash and other material aid to the needy during campaigning is part of poverty-eradication programmes.
The March 8 election will have an independent monitoring body known as Mafrel, or Malaysians for Free and Fair Elections. The Election Commission has for first time endorsed Mafrel’s monitoring role for the upcoming polls.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)