Electoral Reforms One Year On

Posted on May 9, 2019

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In Promise 17 of their manifesto, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition committed themselves to take firm actions to restore the trust of the people in our elections, acknowledging that there are many concerns about the integrity of our electoral system.

Despite several seriously flawed structural issues with our electoral system and the way the previous Election Commission (EC) conducted the 14th General Election (GE14), Pakatan Harapan still managed to defeat Barisan Nasional (BN) and formed the Federal Government and eight State governments. This is due to a tidal wave of discontent towards BN under Najib Razak which resulted in strategic voting by voters nationwide to vote for the party that is most likely to win in their constituencies. The result is PH swept most of the west coast peninsula seats while PAS won big in Kelantan and Terengganu.

In one of the first act, the Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad, freed the EC from the grip of his office by administratively allowing the EC to function independently. However, the independence of the EC must be institutionalized through constitutional and legal amendments that include the selection process of Commissioners through a Nomination Committee and selection by a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), the empowering of EC to deal with election offences and to improve the conduct of elections. The EC should also have operational independence in staffing and budget, subject to scrutiny by a dedicated PSC.

Another positive development since GE14 is the formation of a totally new team of Election Commissioners led by pro-reform lawyer Azahar Azizan Harun. Since the new team took over, they have improved on the processes of conducting elections, started the process of cleaning up the electoral roll and engaged more with civil society organisations and other stakeholders.

All the Commissioners from the old team has since resigned, led by the former Chairman Hashim Abdullah, who tendered his resignation letter in June 2018. In October, the PM had advised the Agong to initiate a Tribunal to investigate their misconducts of the remaining members and have them removed. This triggered the resignations from the remaining six members. Nonetheless, the Tribunal panel is still in discussion as to whether to proceed with the hearing or whether their resignations have rendered the hearing “academic”.

The PM has also formed the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) in August with a two-year mandate to explore all areas of reform needed to make our electoral system one of the most robust in the world in order to uphold parliamentary democracy in this country. On the table is a review of the current First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) election system, delineation, voters registration, election management body reform, caretaker government, voters education, political financing and all related legal amendments needed.

Plans are also underway to lower the voting age to 18, releasing a block of another 4 million voters by GE15 and implementing automatic voters registration, which would automatically bring in another 4 million unregistered eligible voters. There are concerns with the lowering of voting age as some are unsure if these youth would be politically matured to vote but I believe interim and long-term measures can be introduced to raise their political awareness and increase their participation in the political process.

While there is a more open environment to discuss electoral reforms and willingness to effect some of the reforms on the part of the EC, the PH government still shows a reluctance to abide by the rules of electioneering. This can be seen by the plethora of election offences committed by the PH candidates, as well as the opposition in all the 8 by-elections so far. No action has been taken on the over a thousand offences recorded by Bersih 2.0 and other election watchdogs. Admittedly there is a need to bring clarity to these laws and to update them but the almost sense of impunity by which these laws are broken does not bode well for clean and fair elections in this country.

Moving forward, there are still many challenges on the road ahead to reform our electoral system. Chief among them is still the fraudulent re-delineation of our electoral boundaries done by the previous EC just last year. According to Article 113(2)(ii) of the Federal Constitution, we are stuck with the malapportionment and gerrymandering for 8 years after the last review, that is, the earliest another review can be taken is December 2023 for Sarawak and April 2026 for Peninsula and Sabah. That would mean we have to go into GE15 and perhaps even GE16 (since it can take up to 2 years to complete a re-delineation exercise), with these current boundaries. But delineation can be triggered if the composition of seats for each state is changed with an amendment to Article 46, most likely through the allocation of more federal seats for states that are currently under-represented like Selangor and Terengganu. Such an exercise would require much political horse-trading by the parties.

A “low-hanging fruit” that can and should be plucked is for the EC to improve its postal or absentee voting process to allow more disenfranchised Malaysians to vote in our elections. There are an estimated one million over Malaysians living and working overseas, and yet, only 7,979 registered to vote with EC at GE14. The short campaign period of 11 days meant that most of these probably didn’t manage to cast their votes. Add to that, it is estimated that more than 600,000 East Malaysians are living in the Peninsular and around 80,000 from the west living in Sabah and Sarawak. Many are still registered to vote in their hometown constituencies and the cost of casting their votes by flying across the South China Seas is too onerous for most. Currently, military and police personnel are regarded as advance voters in the constituency where their barracks are located. Their votes have been regarded as “vote banks” of the ruling government and their locality highly manipulated to favour ruling party candidates in hotly contested seats. This must end by allowing military and police to vote for their home constituencies as absentee voters.

While the pace of electoral reform has been commendable in the first year of PH’s rule, it has to be sustained through legislative amendments to election laws and constitutional amendments for more structural reforms like the releasing of EC to become a more independent and empowered institutions able to guard the process by which the Rakyat chooses their governments. For such reforms to take place in the coming years, political resolve is needed and bi-partisanship must be sought. The Opposition must realize that structural reforms to the electoral system are in their best interest to ensure that the playing field is level for them in elections.

As PH celebrates its first-year anniversary, I am grateful that we have had one year of constructive engagement to discuss and contribute to reforms to make our elections freer and fairer. Malaysia Baru is both an environment of openness and a destination for all Malaysians who aspire for a better country that is harmonious, inclusive and progressive. Let us unite our efforts to build a New Malaysia. #Satukan Tenaga, Malaysia Baru!

Written by Thomas Fann, Chairperson of electoral reform watchdog Bersih 2.0

This article was published in the special Malaysia Baru pull-out edition of The Edge weekly edition (May 6-12) under the title “Impressive changes leading to a robust democracy”, except for the last four paragraphs that were added by Thomas after the publication.