THAT is the conclusion – benchmarked against the Declaration on Criteria for Free and Fair Elections by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, of which Malaysia is a member – of the joint report by Ideas and CPPS, two of the organisations accredited by the Election Commission of Malaysia to observe the 13th general election. The final version will be released after the EC formally responds, but the interim report is downloadable at www.ideas.org.my.
The immediate question is what action should be taken? Some want to re-run the whole election or hold by-elections in certain constituencies. This has its issues; in particular, turnouts may be lower, some voters having spent thousands to return home the first time. Much evidence has been compiled in anticipation of objections in the High Courts, which are empowered to order by-elections, and Bersih has proposed the setting up of a people’s tribunal to investigate electoral fraud and irregularities, which would be great if supported by government or statutory bodies too – otherwise it will be dismissed as biased.
However, prolonged debate about the validity of the results will foster more divisiveness and antagonism, so it is good that Pakatan Rakyat leaders (including Lim Kit Siang himself) have accepted most of the results – helped by the fact that plenty of Barisan Nasional supporters accept that they did not win convincingly either. Indeed, the popular vote figures show that more Malaysians voted for PR candidates than BN candidates on Sunday.
The focus can then shift to fixing the institutions that affect the electoral process. As our report makes clear, this is not just about the EC but many other government departments, the state-owned media and gerrymandering.
Unfortunately we have got off to a rocky start, with the Prime Minister’s subdued victory speech referring to the “Chinese tsunami”. It’s fine to state that a large majority of Malaysians of Chinese descent voted against BN candidates – that is a verifiable fact – but it is not fine to conclude that they are racist and ungrateful, which is presumptive and provocative.
Thankfully, there are those in Umno who have expressed disagreement with such tactics, including Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah (who graciously accepted defeat in Temerloh), Khairy Jamaluddin (who tripled his majority) and Tun Abdullah Badawi (who did not contest).
Furthermore, a more honest appraisal would have acknowledged large numbers of Malaysians of other ethnicities voting for PR candidates. Unfortunately, intellectual dishonesty or ignorance persists among those who subscribe to the notion that ‘racial unity’ is an absolute end facilitated by commensurate ‘political unity’. It is a myth that our country can do without. If the Prime Minister is serious about national reconciliation, a different concept of unity – equally shared love for the nation and its founding principles (including differences of opinion of how to achieve it) – must triumph.
At a minimum, the Prime Minister must reverse the escalation of racial rhetoric (and the police have a duty here too). Only then can his coalition regain support from the wide base it used to have. Widening the base is a challenge for the opposition too, for on many non-racial criteria significant trends towards either coalition have been observed, including geography (rural / urban), socioeconomic status (lower-to-middle / middle-to-upper) and age (old / young) – but not gender. If these divisions are not addressed, racial polarisation in this country will be replaced by another kind of polarisation abetted by opposing political coalitions.
Perhaps the healthiest trend that will continue is the growing power of civil society. NGOs and volunteer movements have done much to open and moderate the discourse and will continue to do so, whatever happens in the political parties or mainstream media.
Think tanks also enable long-term institutional suggestions to be aired, and I would like to highlight one in light of renewed complaints about the unacceptably of uneven parliamentary constituencies. In our report we point out that at Merdeka, the electoral size of any constituency had be within 15 per cent of the average of constituencies nationwide, but this was abolished in 1973, and today one vote in Putrajaya has the value of nine votes in Kapar. Our recommendation is to restore the 15 per cent rule, but others have called for proportional representation to be adopted.
Debates about the best voting systems abound all over the world, but I suggested in an earlier paper that we can benefit from both first-past-the -post and proportional representation by turning the Dewan Negara into an elected house using the latter, but with each state sending an equal number of senators. This will restore the intention of the Dewan Negara representing the states, apart from improving scrutiny of legislation.
Of course, before we get there, we need to improve the EC, the NRD, the state-owned media, etc …
Tunku Abidin Muhriz is founding president of Ideas.