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Flawed polls put Pak Lah on uneasy throne

IT IS NOT THE best of omens, it seems. Last month's general elections, which gave the National Front (BN) under its new president and prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi its best ever result: 90 per cent of the 219 seats in parliament, control of all 11 of 12 states which had elections (thirteenth, Sarawak, is a BN controlled state anyway). Yet disturbing persistent reports of poll rigging, the Election Commission's less than honest conduct of it, and darker forces that in any other country with a democratic tradition, however nascent, it would have been nullified. The BN, instead of addressing it, wished it away, and Opposition claims of poll rigging is dismissed as sour grapes. But there is one huge difference. At no point, did the Opposition expect to unseat the BN government, indeed they accepted it would have at least a two-thirds majority. It also accepted, in its most pessimistic assessment, Trengganu, which happened. But in an election where it had everything in its favour, why did the BN involve, or at most allow, this poll rigging? As information trickles down, from disaffected UMNO members and others, all of this was concocted at the 38th floor of the Putra World Trade Centre, where UMNO has its headquarters.

The results surprised everyone, including BN and UMNO leaders. The deputy prime minister, Najib Razak, was uncertain of his chances in Pekan, and he had asked his aides a day before polling to persuade the PAS candidate, a retired brigadier-general, to step down. Pak Lah had accepted the inevitable that Kelantan and Trengganu would remain under PAS control, and his best hope was to retain Perlis and Kedah, and prevent an electoral haemmorhage in the other states. At the same time, it is impossible to believe neither had at least a whisp of these plans. They should have stepped in when the EC played fast and loose with the electoral register. They should have stepped in when it played fast and loose with the election rules, and unilaterally extended the voting hours in Selangor. The official reason for it is unconvincing. The hours of voting was gazetted as between 0800 and 1700. That could only be changed only with the consent of the candidates. The EC does not have the right to do that unilaterally.

The EC, in its defence, said it was because of the rush of voters as polls were about to close. That is not valid. Every voter knew of the voting hours well before the polls. Extending the polling hours at the last minute to cate for those already in the polling compound could be justified, but not a blanket two hour extension for others who missed out to come and vote. In any case, this was not publicised. So how would the voter know of the changed hours? Besides, it was only in Selangor that the extension was allowed, not in the other states. Why? What was so special about Selangor that it needed special extension of voting hours? But in what is becoming avaliable, it appears that by noon on polling day, 21 March, barely nine percent had cast their votes. The electoral list was in shambles, in Selangor and elsewhere, with the EC itself unable to pinpoint which was the electoral list to be used. Many who had gone to vote in the morning could not find their names, and the EC officials, mostly from UMNO Youth and UMNO Puteri, could not provide the details from the electoral list in its computer. In any case, that list differened from its own computerised list.

Even assuming the EC could make a case for the extension of polling hours, it could only for Selangor, but not for the parliamentary constituencies in the state. For that comes under different rules. As it is, in Selangor, those voting for their parliamentary candidates, had an advantage the other states did not have. The Opposition parties have come out with a list of constitutional and legal errors in how the general election was conducted. The EC fell flat on its face. Its chairman, Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, has called for a royal commission. But it was immediately rejected by the BN president and prime minister, Pak Lah. More important, it is an admission by the EC that it failed in its task, and one so serious, that the 2004 general election could well have been illegal. The EC ignored its constitutional duty and made ad hoc arrangements, the most serious of which was the electoral list. In elections, the last properly gazetted electoral list is used. It may have been gazetted months earlier. That was how it had been all along. This time, the electoral list was to be the one issued to candidates on nomination day. But it was not. By all accounts, one gazetted on 15 March, two days after nomination day, and even one gazetted two days after 21 March were uised.

The EC insists that those who disagree should take it to the courts. It had safeguarded itself with laws to make this as expensive as possible for those who do so. A RM10,000 deposit is required with each election petiton. Malaysian elections are so expensive that if one does not have a minimum of RM250,000 in cash before hand, it is futile to even think of contesting. The aim it appears is to bankrupt the Opposition parties and others from contesting, for their ability to be an alternate government must first have at least RM100 million available. I do not know how it would meet this challenge of the EC's kamikaze approach to conducting the elections. it is clear the EC has much to explain for its actions. The Selangor polling is so flawed as to call for fresh elections. Parliamentary elections equally so when those constituencies in Selangor were allowed a two-hour extension denied the other states. But the EC is not about to explain its actions. Nor would the government, which insists the integrity of the EC is beyond reproach, which does not talk about it at all.

But there is more to the EC's conduct than the polls extension in Selangor. It unilaterally suspended polling for five hours in Sungei Lembing in Pahang when the wrong party affiliation was affixed to one candidate. But it was not enough. Polling had to be suspended for a week. In other words, the EC made two mistakes: suspending the polls, and calling for fresh polling date. Add to this the remarkable fact that in many contentious parliamentary constituencies, as many as 10,000 voters did not cast their votes for parliament but did for the state assembly. This is all but impossible, since there is someone at every polling station whose only role is to help the voter to push the ballots into the polling box. The EC displayed this discrepancy on its website, but quickly removed it when the Opposition began to question it. Why? If it is an official result, it should not have. If it is not official, it should not have been there. But enough Malaysians downloaded the figures to raise serious doubts about the fairness and fair play in the 2004 general election.

It puts Pak Lah in a spot. Despite his solid victory, he sits atop an uneasy throne. He cannot assign blame to the EC. For it is he who must protest the loudest at this deliberate hijacking of the general election, at the moment by parties unknown, to make his tenure uncomfortable. He should have relied on his personal popularity, and the tremendous goodwill he had as the new prime minister, and built on that. The longer he continues, without addressing the growing doubt that this general election is irrevocably flawed, the more the ground would move away from the BN, and him personally. The Malay ground is furious. It feels cheated. The creative delineation of the constituencies, when large sections of Chinese communities were added to solid Malay seats inclined to PAS and the Opposition has raised a demon more serious than what the former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim created. The BN and Pak Lah believes they can ride the storm, but they view the world from the eye of the storm, unaware of the violence out of it. But make no mistake, they would slip into the violence if they do nothing about it. For a start, they must consider fresh elections for the Selangor state assembly. But they cannot stop there. They could have in the week or so after the polls. Not now. More dramatic measures must be taken to erase the growing view that we are now descending into the elections favoured of African presidents, where elections are held to vote them into power. God forbid if that should be the fate of elections in Malaysia.

[An edited version of this appears as my Chiaroscuro column today, 20 April 2004, in malaysiakini (]

M.G.G. Pillai
[email protected]

Terbitan : 23 April 2004

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