Ensuring free and fair elections
By P. Gunasegaram
Just as justice has to be seen to be done, so must elections be seen to be just.
IF we cut through the noise and the chase, we will agree that all right-thinking Malaysians want free and fair elections so that they can elect the government of their choice without anyone depriving them of that right by foul means.
The Government says it wants it, the Opposition wants it and the people want it too — everybody wants free, fair and clean elections.
If that’s the case then there’s no problem. All it takes is for the election authorities to do the needful.
The divide arises because the Government and the Elections Commission (EC) maintain that all is fair and well, while the Opposition and a large section of the population do not, maintaining in particular that the electoral rolls are being manipulated by the addition of illegal immigrants.
It does not help too that there were attempts to hastily amend the election laws, a move which has been subsequently withdrawn.
There is only one way to bridge the divide. The EC has to not only ensure but show that all the actions that it takes are in furtherance of free and fair elections.
Only then can it restore confidence in the electoral system and assure the public that the elections will indeed be free, fair and clean.
Here are 10 ways that the EC can promote free and fair elections and be seen to be doing so:
1. Keep electoral rolls open for inspection at all times. Not only should the EC do this but it should promptly respond to and give explanations for anomalies that have been brought to its attention. This should be done publicly.
2. Inform those whose constituencies have been changed promptly. If for whatever reason, a person’s constituency has been changed, then the EC must inform the constituent immediately and explain clearly the need for the change. That will help clear any confusion immediately.
3. Ensure that all parties continue to have a right to observe the election process. Observers from all parties must always have the right to have their representatives present in the polling booth to ensure that elections are held according to the law. Under no circumstances must such rights be taken away.
4. Count ballots in the polling booths in the presence of observers. This is the best way to ensure that there is no stuffing of ballot boxes as counting can begin as soon as polling is over in the presence of observers. This is how it has been done in the past and there is no need to change it.
5. Open polling of armed forces and police personnel to observation. Even if polling takes place in security areas, observers must be allowed in to monitor the polling process to ensure that there is no pressure put on them by their superiors to vote en-bloc for a particular candidate.
6. Have safeguards to ensure postal ballots are tamper-proof. This will entail amongst others sealing ballot boxes in the presence of independent observers and opening them in the presence of other independent observers too.
7. Allow election observers from accredited agencies. If our elections are free and fair, what’s there to hide? Let anyone from anywhere come and observe the elections and see for themselves how fair and free it is.
8. Move towards automatic voter registration. Considering that each adult Malaysian has an electronic identity card, it is inexplicable why automatic voter registration based on the MyKad is yet to be implemented.
9. Ensure fair media time for all parties. Considering that most mainstream media is dominated by parties friendly to the ruling government, it is necessary to ensure that there is fairer election coverage so that Malaysians can vote on a true and fair representation of the facts.
10. Lengthen the campaign period. The campaign period should be lengthened to at least a month so that major issues are given enough time for a proper airing and the public have enough time to make up their minds over who they want to vote for.
An election is not just about processes but about confidence too.
The Malaysian public and the international community must have the confidence that they can rely on the election results.
If for any reason that confidence is lacking, then it is up the EC to take measures to ensure that confidence returns.
The only way it can do that is to take the right actions and be totally transparent about them.
Independent consultant and writer P. Gunasegaram likes this quote from James Freeman Clarke: A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.