The Electoral Process
General elections, which must be called every five years, have been held since 1957. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) dominates the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition of ethnic-based parties which has been continually in power since Independence. It again won the November 29, 1999 general election, garnering some 56% of the popular votes but 148 out of the 193 parliamentary seats, that is, some 77% of the seats. The question arises whether elections are free and fair in Malaysia. From a technical perspective, the answer would generally be in the affirmative, since an independent Election Commission, as provided for in the constitution purportedly manages the electoral process.
However, as many would point out, given the severe restrictions on political freedom it would be obvious that any political opposition faces formidable obstacles in their political work and any political contest would be an unequal and unfair contest. Communication with the electorate is fundamental in the process of political work but this remains difficult for opposition political parties. The inherent unfairness in the conduct of political activity, which is continuous in the period in between elections, also spills over into the conduct of the elections themselves. Several serious structural problems undermine the fairness of the elections. In terms of fairness, access to the media remains a serious problem. Very short notice of elections is given and campaign periods are now as short as 8 days from the date of nomination to balloting as was the case in 1999. For the ruling coalition with its media control and substantial access to government machinery, this is not a problem. However, opposition parties cannot therefore take their issues to the electorate or respond effectively to challenges from the ruling parties. Opposition candidates at a local level without media access cannot communicate in the short campaign period with all the thousands of voters in a particular constituency.
SUARAM and many other observers have pointed out as well that unfair constituency delineation or gerrymandering has also made a mockery of the one-person one-vote democracy that is fundamental in any electoral system that claims to be democratic:
"For the one-person one-vote system to function, the disparity in numbers of voters between constituencies (whether at state or parliamentary level) must be controlled. The original 1957 Federal Constitution provided such guarantees – it said that the disparity shall not exceed fifteen percent (15 %). However these fundamental guarantees have been removed by constitutional amendments. Today, opposition-supporting parliamentary constituencies in Kuala Lumpur have up to 100,000 voters whilst the smallest parliamentary constituencies may have about 20,000 to 25,000 voters. The difference intended originally to be limited to 15 % has now become 400 – 500 %! In 1990 for example, while Penang (which has traditionally been an opposition bastion) had an average of about 50,838 voters per constituency, Perlis had an average of 33,032 voters per constituency. Further gerrymandering occurs in the provision of state seats within parliamentary constituencies.The 1999 general election also raised the issue of the disenfranchisement of some 680,000 new voters who were not allowed to vote because the Election Commission claimed it needed several more months to process the new electoral roll. In the event, the Commission stuck by its decision to use the 1998 electoral roll amidst the protest of the opposition parties and the decision of the newly formed election watch organization, BUDI, to consider the election as invalid.