FOR PEOPLE FRIEDLY, FREE & FAIR ELECTIONS
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Press Release (March 25 2011)
Malaysian Election Observers Network (MEO-Net), a network of 6 election observation and voter education groups, announced today its decision to organize a long term election observation mission to the Sarawak State Elections, which will be held on Apr 16th 2011. The Sarawak State Elections Observation Mission will be led by Mission Chief Ong Boon Keong, who has vast experience in local and international election observation and have organized monthly pre-election observation studies to Sarawak since Sept 2009. To cater for the vast areas in Sarawak a coordinator will be appointed for each of the 3 regions in Sarawak ie South, Central and North. As estimated 100-200 observers are expected to be trained and recruited to keep the state elections under the closest possible observation.
1. Context of state elections: more pressures on election conduct this time
The context of the state elections is the post-2008 general elections outcome where the 2 major coalitions in West Malaysia become almost evenly matched, leaving the 56 East Malaysian states playing the `king maker’ role. Since much is at stake MEO-net expect there will be heightened pressure on the conduct and integrity of the elections. MEO-Net therefore see a role to keep the closest watch over the conduct of the elections so that the voters do have a chance to elect the best candidates under free and fair conditions.
2. Accreditation conditions handicap observers’ job
Election Commission has announced its decision to appoint Mafrel as the accredited election observer body, an appointment which come with restrictive conditions which handicap the job of observers eg the observers can’t speak out on any electoral frauds they spotted, observers can’t take a photo without the permission of the chief of the polling station(KTM), observers can’t enter polling station(typically a classroom) to observe polling and ballot counting, among other unreasonable conditions. MEO-Net do not see accreditation under such conditions as recommendable nor helpful to uphold free and fair elections. On the other hand MEo-Net see, in a situation where the EC failed to deliver free and fair elections, the media remain one of the few avenues for observers to pressure the EC into making improvement.
MEO-net has applied to the EC as accredited election observers for 2 reasons: 1. to appeal to the EC to drop all unreasonable conditions which handicap the observers’ job; 2. open accreditation to all bona fide election observers groups in and out of the country, in line with international practices to improve transparency of election conduct. In most democratic countries numerous election observers groups are accredited by their election administrator to uphold the integrity of the election process. The policy to limit accredited observers groups to only one reflect a control freak mentality on the part of the EC.
3. Program: full cycle election observation
A. Focus; full election cycle
MEO-Net therefore will organize a people-friendly election observation mission despite being stopped from the nomination center and also the polling center. MEO-Net see that there are usually more frauds being committed in the campaign period, where institutional weaknesses on the part of the election administrators (EC, PDRM, MACC, local governments) have habitually failed to arrests the grow of vote buying, abuses of government machineries and unfair media coverage. MEO-Net’s observation will not be limited to only polling day.
B. Training: all welcome!
To enable closer observation of the elections MEO-Net will conduct free training for election observers from the interested members of the public. No qualification is needed from the trainee so long that there is an interests to see freer and fairer elections that will bring better democracy. This is in line with the international practice of the election observers movements where all layers of society-be it students, illiterates, nuns, laborers cooperate with teachers, office workers, professionals etc to safeguard the electoral democracy from any corruption. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers go on duty as election observers in Malaysia’s regional neighbours at each of their elections. Malaysians can catch up for their own benefits!
C. Output: preliminary & final reports to be out promptly!
A preliminary report of the elections will be presented within 3 days of the polling, while the final report will be out within 1 month(if there is no electoral challenge to the result).
4. Pre-election Observation report(a summary)
A. Methodology: from Sept 2009 monthly trips of 1-2 weeks have been organized to conduct pre-election observation in Sarawak by groups of volunteers. The group meet up with government departments at all levels to give feedback to the departments. 4 written reports have been produced from the trips so far. The observations from the pre-election study are as below.
B. Institutional framework:
a. The 7 Election Commission Commisioners are appointed by the Agong at the sole recommendation of the Prime Minister, unlike the international practice to appoint them from the Parliament where by-partisan endorsement is needed; public perception of partiality remain a weakness of the current system;
b. The EC Commissioners are appointed from among the retiring civil servants who lack training in election administration; Their lifelong deference to politicians make them lack the courage to reprimand or take action against their law-breaking superiors; In other democracies retired judges, academicians and other respected civil society leaders are appointed as the election commissioners;
c. Similarly the appointment of Returning Officers from the rank of District Officers and Council heads replicate the same problems at the lower levels;
C. Legal framework:
a. The locating of the EC within the Prime Minister Department make EC appear to lack the autonomy that it needs to act as the apex body in election matters as required by the Federal Constitution;
b. The lack of adequate funding and capacities ie investigation and prosecution powers, further weaken the EC’s authority in enforcing the electoral laws as it depends on the police, the MACC, the Attorney General to investigate various frauds and prosecute the fraudsters; recent increase in funding don’t seems to go towards addressing the EC’s lack of capacities in the above mentioned areas;
D. Voter Registration:
At the base of the claim to representativeness of the election is the voter base and the voting rates; Without adequate representativeness the elected representatives lack legitimacy and respect from the public; Also disenfranchising such a large section of the natives amount to suppressing their voting rights-which is not acceptable in all modern democracies! However Sarawak suffer in this 2 areas due to various reasons:
- Voter registration: Sarawak remain the states among all others with the highest non-registered voters rates ie 32%, compared to the national average of 28%. Worse the vast interior areas where majority of the seats are located, the voters registration rates can be much lower than half eg 8000 out of 22 000 residents in Lubok Antu are registered; 7000 out of 23 000 residents in Belaga are registered, while 7000 out of 30 000 residents of Lawas are registered. Possibly hundreds of thousands of Sarawakian residents lack personal documents to register as voters;
- Voting rates: voting rates of Sarawak(58% in general elections, 63% in states elections) lag behind West Malaysia (77%), due to young voters working or studying in West Malaysia without opportunity to use the service of postal votes; In addition polling centers can be far from numerous long houses –thus discouraging voting;
a. Election Commission be appointed by Parliament and made an independent statutory body with guaranteed budget to run its duties;
b. Commissioners be appointed from ex-judicial officers, academics and civil society leaders known for their integrity;
c. As the sole body charged by the Federal Constitution to run elections on regular and fair basis the EC should be restored as an apex body on all election matter; EC should either develop its own investigation and prosecuting power or empowered to obtain support from the various arms of the government to enforce the election laws;
d. Voter registration in Sarawak should be given adequate funding or automatic voter registration be considered, as means to enfranchise the over 450 000 residents who are not registered as voters;
e. Sarawakians without personal documents should be addressed as a matter of urgency by the National Registration Department (JPN), with registration rates disclosed for public monitoring;
f. Postal voting should extended to Sarawakians who work or live out of their home town/village; polling centers should be open in all major towns to enable out-of-town Sarawakians exercise their voting rights-not unlike practices by Malaysia’s regional neighbours;
F. Conclusion of Pre-election observation: from the observations above it appears that the institutional frameworks, legal frameworks and voter base of the Sarawak elections are not in the best conditions compared to international norms. The EC should do well to try to address as many as practically possible of these inadequacies ahead of the elections to improve the credibility of the electoral process, in line with its Constitutional duty to carry out the elections on free and fair basis. The EC’s regular claim of itself as a mere election manager is a unacceptable deflation from its true potential and status as the apex election administrator with real arbitrating authorities, as is the case for EC of other regional democracies. The people/rakyat look towards the EC to return elections as the true way for the majority of the society to select their best choices of candidates to lead them towards progress, fairness and sustainability.
5. Trends from Sibu by-election: mal-practices will worsen!
The pre-election observation was aided by a Parliament by-election in Sibu in May 2010. The trends towards blatant vote buying, abuses of government programs, vehicles, staff, building etc seems to be out of control as the institutions charged with the duty to arrest such negative trends(EC, PDRm, MACC, local authorities) have been disabled under the prevalent practices. We will expect such trends to extend if not worsen into the coming state elections. The need and challenges for close observation of the election conduct by the people is never as colossal as this!
6. Trend thus far: pre-election campaigning committed by both sides
From our media and direct observation the politicians from both sides, from local as well as from West Malaysia have been conducting their campaigns ahead of the official campaign period, which is after nomination on Apr 6th. In 1 case we observed that an Opposition leader had been stopped from giving a speech in his home town of Lawas-whereas no such hindrance has been observed happening to the ruling party politicians. The police should be made to answer such inconsistency, and the EC made to answer why it would not extend official campaign period since there is a by-partisan demand for more campaigning time. The allocated 10 day campaign period continue past unadvisable trend to limit campaign time.
MEO-Net will continue to present its observation reports throughout the election through its web site as well as press conferences.For any enquiries please contact:
Ong Boon Keong
National Coordinator of MEO-Net
The PC was reported by Borneo Post, STAR and See Hua Daily.
A report of the press conference from See Hua Daily: