Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Free polls? Not in Malaysia.

Free polls? Not in Malaysia


Malaysia's ruling coalition is busy fixing the general election
scheduled for March 8. Julia Zappei reports from Kuala Lumpur

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.

The parliamentary election on March 8 has once again fuelled
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 Mr
Mohammed 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 election, 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
institutionalised 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 favour 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 per cent of the 219
parliamentary seats with only 64 per cent of the popular vote.

"The election is far from a level playing field," said Mr Dzulkifli
Ahmad, the chief political strategist of the Opposition Pan-Malaysian
Islamic Party. "We are really pushed to the wall." Mr 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," Mr Navaratnam 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
organisation made up of opposition parties and some independent

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

Ms 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
north-eastern 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

Mr 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.

Ms Somsri Hananunta-suk, 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."

-- AP

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