An 88-year old voter casting her vote in the Hulu
ELECTION watchdogs have become a regular feature in Malaysian polls since at least 2005. In that year, Malaysians for Free and Fair Elections (Mafrel) monitored the Pengkalan Pasir by-election. Mafrel was even officially recognised by the Election Commission (EC) in 2007 as an independent elections observer.
Indeed, Mafrel wasn’t the first elections watchdog. Another group, the National Institute for Electoral Integrity (NIEI) was formed earlier following the 1999 Reformasi movement. Other watchdog groups have also since sprouted. There is the Malaysian Voters’ Union (Malvu), Sarawakians for Free and Fair Elections (Safrel), the Malaysia Election Observation Network (MEO-Net), My Election Watch (MEW), and the Sibu Election Watch (SEW). Several other civil society groups have also incorporated election advocacy and monitoring into their training programmes.
Membership of these groups may overlap. Nevertheless, what does their emergence say about citizens’ awareness, and public confidence in the EC? What role do they play in a democracy and of what value are they to the public? Additionally, how credible are they if they aren’t recognised by the EC?
“Can you recall a by-election where there wasn’t a complaint about the electoral roll or postal votes? More recently, there are complaints about voters being moved out of the constituency, or their polling centres and voting localities changed,” says Mafrel chairperson Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh in a phone interview.
“On that basis, I think that’s why more election watch groups are coming up. It shows that the EC still has room for improvement.”
Watch groups are tapping into the public’s low confidence in the EC and training volunteers to become polls observers. MEO-Net coordinator Ong Boon Keong says training has been conducted in Sarawak since September 2009 in preparation for the state elections, which must be called by June 2011.
“There’s growing citizen interest in elections and democracy but there’s been little avenue for those who are non-partisan,” Ong says in a phone interview.
It is about helping citizens “take ownership of elections”, he adds. Similar citizen-based movements began earlier elsewhere in the region, and are active in Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia.
The tasks for election watch groups are plenty. They include monitoring polling stations, campaigning, media coverage, and cross-checking the electoral roll with actual voters on the ground. Ong says the largest number of local election observers ever mobilised in Malaysia was 600 during the 2008 general election. In contrast, volunteers number between 100,000 to 200,000 during Indonesian or Thai elections, he says.
EC accreditation and credibility
Unsurprisingly, election watch groups are criticised as being pro-opposition since most of the faults they point out are committed by the EC and the BN. However, Mafrel did take both sides to task in the Hulu Selangor by-election.
That didn’t stop the EC from withdrawing Mafrel’s accreditation, however, for the recent Hulu Selangor and Sibu by-elections. The EC said Mafrel failed to submit reports to the commission on previous by-elections it had monitored since 2008. Report submission is a condition for accreditation.
Ong feels that the 20 conditions tied to accreditation are meant to dissuade watch groups from applying. Among other rules, observers cannot enter the polling room and cannot watch vote-counting, nor can they take photos for documentation except with permission.
Watch groups may lack standing among state authorities and segments of the public without EC recognition. However, they themselves feel it’s not critical to getting their work done in a country where the government regularly discredits civil society groups.
Syed IbrahimSyed Ibrahim says EC accreditation is “not critical but important”. “Our presence inside the polling station could prevent certain things from happening. But accreditation is not critical to the extent that we cannot monitor things happening outside the polling station, such as incidences and complaints of bribery or cheating during the campaign.”
However, there was a time when EC accreditation mattered. Mafrel used to be allowed inside the polling stations. This access was removed after the Permatang Pauh by-election in August 2008, Syed Ibrahim notes.
Foreign or local?
Malaysia shut its doors on international election watch groups after the 1990 general election when polling was observed by the Commonwealth Observer Mission. Even then, the mission was not allowed to play its proper role by making official reports on the elections. The government stance towards independent foreign poll observers is usually disdainful and it insists that the EC does not require any scrutiny.
Some think that it’s time for Malaysia to allow international observers in again in the interest of credibility.
PuthuchearyPolitical observer Dr Mavis Puthucheary says in the absence of international observers, domestic watch groups are important. However, foreign observers may carry more clout with the EC because of their international standing. “Given the kind of situation we are in now, it’s up to public opinion to pressure the EC that watch groups are essential in ensuring free and fair elections. Otherwise, the EC will always have the final say,” Puthucheary says in a phone interview.
Malaysia’s rejection of foreign observers also speaks of its lack of sincerity about being transparent, adds Ong. He notes that even less developed countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia have election laws that give foreign observers a role in strengthening the polling process.
However, whether foreign or local, the EC‘s current position reflects its closed mindset towards independent monitoring in general.
Allowing international observers might boost the government’s image. But Syed Ibrahim feels that home-grown observers are more effective as far as advancing democracy among fellow citizens is concerned.
And that is probably the most valuable thing about local watch groups at this juncture. Despite the setback with Mafrel’s accreditation, the election monitoring movement is gaining momentum with the relaunch of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih 2.0. This time round, Bersih is a totally partisan-free alliance headed by former Bar Council president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan.
Bersih 2.0 secretariat member Faisal Mustaffa says the coalition is in the process of getting registered as a society, while conducting voter education on election law. A particular concern is the redrawing or delimitation of electoral boundaries, an exercise allowed every eight to ten years under the Federal Constitution. Speculation is that the BN government will likely conduct it next year ahead of a snap poll.
A particular concern is delimitation of electoral boundaries
Can Bersih and local election watch groups gain enough momentum in the short period left before the next general election? Is their revival a phenomenon that might portend the outcome of the 13th general election in the same way the massive Bersih rally in November 2007 foretold of the “tsunami” that struck in the 2008 polls? Few in power predicted the impact of civil society in the elections then. But they now know they were mistaken in their assumptions.
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