The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH 2.0) expresses concern with the announcement by the Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin that all physical gatherings and social activities related to the upcoming Malacca state election will be banned from October 25 to November 27 in order to reduce the risk of new Covid-19 infections. While we acknowledge that the risk is real and precautions are necessary, such a total ban is a suppression of all candidates’ right to campaign and express themselves, the voters’ right to make an informed decision by hearing from the candidates, and ultimately is a suppression of democracy itself.
Malacca has entered Phase 4 of the National Recovery Plan (NRP) on 18 October where the SOP on social activities and visitations are allowed, limited to 50% space capacity and physical distancing adhered, the Health Minister’s ruling is inconsistent with the NRP’s guideline as it targets only election-related activities.
While the ban is on all political parties and candidates, we are concerned that it would grossly disadvantage those parties who are not part of the ruling Government as state media tends to focus almost exclusively on the activities and achievements of ruling parties’ candidates, and highlight failures of the Opposition. This would render the playing field unfair and reduces the legitimacy of any outcome from the election.
Bersih 2.0 calls on the Health Minister to reconsider the total ban on physical gathering but instead implement stricter enforcement of the SOP outlined by the NRP by increasing the number of enforcement officers during the period of the Malacca polls. Any violators, regardless of party affiliations, should be fined or prosecuted under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988.
We further proposes that the Election Commission (EC) come out with the following rules, requirements and alternatives so that the restrictions do not suppress the rights of parties and candidates to campaign.
- Provide for a period of not less than 7 days for candidates to file their nomination papers at the Malacca EC office and to have them checked and any mistakes corrected before the end of nomination. Surprise rejections are unnecessary and should be avoided.
- The list of successful candidates can be displayed online on Nomination day at 10am. This would remove the need for political parties’s supporters and candidates to gather at nomination centres throughout Malacca.
- For political gatherings or ceramahs, regulate that chairs must be provided and that they must be at least 1 metre apart, and all attendees must be seated. This should apply also to small gatherings at coffee shops and day or night markets. Facemask must be worn at all times by all speakers and attendees.
- For house to house visitations, the number of people allowed to be part of a group be limited to 5 and they must not enter the house or be at least be 2 metres away from households when speaking.
- The EC could call on government-owned TV and radio broadcast outlets to provide designated time slots for party political broadcast to all contesting parties and independents. Time allotted should be equal regardless of party.
- Broadcast media outlets could play a greater role during this election by organising discussion panel of candidates where local issues are discussed and candidates’ views can be heard.
- Debates between Chief Ministerial candidates could be organised and telecast on state television channels at least twice – right after Nomination day, and another two days before Polling Day.
- The EC could provide and sponsor at least one designated billboard display in a prominent location in each of the 28 state constituencies, where the details of the contesting candidates are displayed with their party symbols. This would help smaller parties and independent candidates in getting much needed visibility.
- To reduce crowding during polling, the EC could consider extending polling to three days and designate day and time slots for different categories of people according to age groups. This could also reduces the need for multiple salurans (streams) manned by multiple sets of election workers.
- Stringent social distancing, masking and sanitizing SOPs must be adhered to and all election workers must be properly trained to keep themselves and voters safe from infections.
- Voters who are unvaccinated should not be unduly inconvenienced from exercising their voting rights. A health safety booth could be set up to provide instant RTK-Antigen saliva or nasal swab tests to confirm that they are Covid-19 negative before they are allowed to vote with the other voters. Those tested positive should be allowed to cast their vote separate from the rest within the health booth.
- Gatherings at counting and tallying centres should also be restricted and all results broadcast live on national TV channels.
Bersih 2.0 urges the EC to take this opportunity to introduce new and innovative ways like what we have proposed above so that the important task of participating in an election and our democracy is not suppressed during a time of a health pandemic. While the Ministry of Health must play their part to ensure that infections are kept low, it must not overstep its role and impose unnecessary restrictions on the conduct of elections.
Statement issued by:
The Steering Committee of BERSIH 2.0