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When special rules in Selangor threw the 2004 general elections into confusion and doubt

THE OFFICIAL AND MAINSTREAM media now takes no notice. Not because it is not an issue, but that it is. The swirling controversy about the 2004 General Election will not abate. But ignoring it would not either. The prime minister, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is in power but paradoxically not in control. The Election Commission, which organised the election, realised too late it did not control how the elections were conducted. Its chairman, Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, realised it with a shock but lost his head. The more he talked the more doubts grew that the elections were flawed beyond dispute. He contradicted himself with each press conference, until unable to keep track of his post-election justifications he called first for an official probe, than a royal commission. Pak Lah shot it down. He would not want his tremendous victory sullied by a credible report affirming the electoral fixing that led to it. So he stonewalls it. But there comes a time, in this fallout, when the power that be realises, as now, that it cannot justify how it came to power. So it shuts up, and hopes all would. it could not be more wrong.

It is an unspoken truth in Malaysia that the governing National Front (BN) coalition benefits when constituencies are delineated. One it was after every decade or thereabout, after the national census. But its leaders decided that that was not enough. So it is after eight years and two elections. It is so done that the elections immediately after benefits it. At least that is the theory. But PAS, working out of sight and behind the scenes, had built a formidable electoral machine that now challenges the BN and especially UMNO. Helping it is the split in the Malay cultural ground. The EC delineates parliamentary and state constituencies on racial lines, but with the troubling strength of PAS in the Malay heartland, the Malay constituencies are now packed with non-Malay voters so PAS would lose out yet again. But in the second election, PAS and the opposition gains ground as BN and UMNO sits on their laurels, and the Opposition makes headway.

The 2004 General Elections should have been no different. The BN would have won with its two-thirds and more majority. The Opposition would have held its ground, or even lose some of it. But the BN realised the old practices cannot work. The Pendang parliamentary and Anak Bukit state assembly byelections in Kedah - it won one, lost the other - two years ago hinted at the dangers ahead: the BN could not depend on the Malay ground, disenchanted with it since Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim was sacked, jailed, humiliated and beaten to a pulp in defiance of Malay cultural rules, and that divide forced it to a new alignment with the Chinese and the bumiputras of Sarawak and Sabah. It was equally important for PAS to be sidelined. In Parliament, it showed up a BN front bench as the Malaysian Keystone Cops, bumbling and bungling its way from one relentless parliamentary question to another, unable to debate the issues, frightened when PAS leaders stand up to speak, unwilling to stand up, running away from the chamber when the issues got an uncomfortably close airing. So it enhanced the advantage it had with the new electoral boundaries with a little skullduggery of its own.

So an unmentioned hidden UMNO, more than BN, agenda had to bring the DAP back into parliament in 2004. PAS would attack it culturally, for which it had no answers. DAP did not know what that the cultural limits are, and blames or attack the government within a framework of presumed Westminster parliamentary practice, but which made no sense to the Malay ground. A DAP opposition also gave the government a chance to ignore it, and not be chastised for it. But it went about it with an uncoordinated plan that frightened UMNO leaders as much as the Malay community. The Malay opposition expected it, and were not upset. But the Malay ground was uncompromising. Especially when the EC changed the election rules on the run, unable even to furnish the electoral list that would stand scrutiny: the electoral list given the Opposition was not what was eventually used, but even that list is what individual official decides. It had another agenda which, as usual, it did not think through: to challenge PAS within a framework of a Malaysian theocracy, in which the only issue is whether the UMNO or PAS view should be the mainstream. So, it had to destroy the multiracial Parti KeADILan Nasional (PKN or KeADILan), which would in this fight attract the UMNO and PAS Muslim who did not believe in a theocracy.

In the light of these machinations, the Malay cultural ground distanced itself from the BN, and stayed away in droves on polling day, 21 March 2004. In Selangor, this was most marked. By noon, less than nine per cent had voted. UMNO was in a quandry. The new prime minister could not claim the support he needed to reinforce his attempt to be UMNO president later in the year. So a cabal at UMNO headquarters, on the 38th floor of the Putra World Trade Centre, took the momentous, and fatal, decision to adjust the results. The decision to extend the polling hours, in defiance of the government gazette which fixed the hours, was made here. The rules were cheerfully thrown overboard. It is now certain that but for this last minute BN intervention, Selangor was all but lost to BN. One source in the know said the mentri besar, Dato' Seri Mohamed Khir Toyo, was defeated. The EC had no intention to conduct a fair election, only one in which the BN won at any cost. So in many areas of Selangor, those who went to vote found their names missing from the rolls, or when they went with their polling numbers taken from EC website found it missing at the polling station or it had a different names. Even the names differed from the EC's printed list and the computer printout. Names missing in the morning miraculously reappeared in the afternoon. One candidate has evidence that only 30 per cent voted in his parliamentary constituency, but when the formal results were announced, 70 per cent had. Besides when the EC extended the polling in Selangor by two hours, it raised an interesting conundrum: it allowed the late voters to cast their votes for both parliamentary and state assembly candidates. In other words, Selangor voters had a longer time to vote for their members of parliament than elsewhere. Is that legal? But Selangor is only at the tip of the iceberg.

Tan Sri Rashid had no role in this and clearly was out of the loop, though the EC secretary, Dato' Wan Ahmad Wan Omar, a member of Malaysia's intelligence services, cannot escape blame for what happened. Nor could the home ministry's secretary-general, Tan Sri Aseh Che' Mat, and the National Registration Department, which issues identity cards. Why was Tan Sri Aseh at the PWTC with Pak Lah to observe the election results on the night of 21 March? His glee at every BN victory, at the live telecast, contrasted sharply with the sombre demeanour of the politicians around Pak Lah. It is important, at least that is how the BN and UMNO view it, to accept that the elections are over, and carry on with running the government. That is more difficult than it realises. For this election proves beyond doubt that if the EC does not act decisively to right the electoral wrongs, a fair and free elections in Malaysia is a contradiction in terms, and Malaysia would join the ranks of other countries in Africa - Mr Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, for instance - where elections are held so the ruling party can wipe out the opposition. Is that the Malaysia the BN wants in the future?

But it is not only in Selangor where such BN fine-tuning of the polls took place. In the four northern Malay states of Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Trengganu, it was rampant. So, in Pahang. And in Sabah. The BN must decide if it wants to be known for being returned to power in a false and flawed mandate, or if it should accept that the flawed mandate is unacceptable, or it must hold steadfast to the idea of free and fair elections. Unfortunately, the BN and its leaders are in no mood to assess their good fortune. A miss is as a good as a mile. The opposition missed its cue, and in the BN view, bleats as sore losers. But it is a view that cannot stand close scrutiny. The Malay ground seethes in anger. When PAS called for a boycott of the re-polling of the Sungei Lembing state assembly constituency in Pahang, where the opposition candidate's affiliation was to the wrong party, it presaged a harbinger of what is to come if this rot is not stopped now: the possibility and continual and fractious confrontation that would be a hundred times worse than over the Anwar Ibrahim affair. But it is not a view that would cause much sleep in the BN and UMNO inner circle. That does not make it right. The least option open to it is to order fresh elections in Selangor for the state assembly and parliament. But it raises another question: if the parliamentary elections in Selangor are flawed, how could one accept the results elsewhere? If Selangor state assembly is so flawed, could it not be elsewhere too? It is answers to these intractable questions that would, in the end, decide on the fate of democracy in Malaysia.

[I wrote this for my column in the PAS organ, Harakah, in its issue today, 21 April 2004]

M.G.G. Pillai
[email protected]

Terbitan : 23 April 2004

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