The Electoral Process

elections 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.

In the 1995 elections, while every parliamentary constituency in Selangor was allocated three state seats, the Opposition held constituencies of Klang and Petaling Jaya were allocated only two state constituencies. Such gerrymandering means that the opposition parties whilst obtaining the support of a substantial portion of the electorate will only still obtain a small number of seats in Parliament.

The use of money by candidates during campaigns has been a problem in some areas. The practice of vote buying in internal UMNO elections was openly acknowledged at the UMNO General Assembly in 1994 and specific cases were publicized in 1995 (New Straits Times, 9 August 1995). In the 1996 state elections in Sarawak for the seat of Bukit Begunan, the unsuccessful candidate successfully mounted an election petition in court to challenge the result using evidence of vote buying.

The ruling Barisan Nasional also blatantly promises public funds to win electoral support. For example, during the Sarawak state elections campaign from 15 August - 8 September 1996, a state government grant of RM600,000 for street lights was given to the Satok/Kg. Patingan area, RM315,000 was distributed to 52 local organisations in Kuching, RM 1.6 million was announced to improve infrastructure in the Lambir constituency, RM 1 million (in state and federal grants) was announced for the rehabilitation of a tiger prawn aquaculture project at Mukah, licences for the use of trawl nets were given to 105 people from 13 villages in Kuching district and licences for boats to 278 people from 18 villages (See Aliran Monthly 1996, 16:9 for a more detailed list).

Government agencies, civil servants and government vehicles are also readily available to ruling parties during the campaign period. Opposition parties often find that they are denied the use of public halls or fields for their campaign as happened in the general election in 1995 in Penang when the Penang Municipal Council prevented the opposition parties from using the Esplanade for a gathering although it had earlier allowed a dinner function organized by the ruling party, Barisan Nasional on 9 April 1995.

Observers have described Malaysian elections as generally free whilst agreeing that they are not fair elections. Most voters would vote in a reasonably free context without the problem of threats or undue influence. The problem of monetary or development inducements has been mentioned above. For many voters, the threat of denial of development benefits is a very real factor especially with the new vote counting system which can identify whether a particular village, kampung or several blocks of streets within a constituency voted opposition or ruling party. However the practice of "postal votes" continues to raise serious questions about the actual casting of ballots for these votes.

The large majority of voters vote at centres after having their registration verified. They then vote in sight of observers but inside a voting booth. Votes are then counted in front of representatives of candidates. For a lot of military and police personnel and their spouse, their votes are cast through "postal ballots" where the actual marking of ballots is unscrutinized. Only the opening of postal ballots and the counting is done in a transparent way. Postal ballots can constitute up to 4 5 % of the total ballots cast in the whole elections. (Suaram, 1999: 33-35).

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.