Malaysian Election Observers Network
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Preliminary report on 10th Sarawak State Election:
Neither Free Nor Fair
The 10th Sarawak State Elections have finally been conducted on April 16th 2011 to elected a new state government for Sarawak. The election elected 71 representatives to the State Assembly or the management of the state government, comprising 55 representatives from BN, 15 from Pakatan and 1 independent. Whether the representatives reflect fully the choice of the population depend very much on the conduct of the election ie whether the elections were free and fair. Malaysian Election Observers Network (MEO-Net) has organized a Sarawak State Election Observation Mission (SSEOM) headed by Ong BK, to conduct an investigation. The Mission started since September 2009 and recruited, trained and deployed 80 observers to about 20 key constituencies, in its observation mission which cover the full cycle of the state elections. While the elections were largely peaceful and follow the schedule from the reports collected from the observes we arrived at the conclusion that the 10th Sarawak state elections were neither free nor fair, rendering the elections highly inadequate to reflect the true will of the people.
1.Pre-election Observation: Low enfranchisement lead to unrepresentative government
From a population of 2.5mil in Sarawak less than 1million citizens above 21 years old are registered as voters, representing 32% of the eligible citizens. This is the lowest among all states in Malaysia. The true extent of disenfranchisement dip below half of the population since in the interior or rural areas where 66 out of 71 state assembly seats are located, the enfranchisement level falls below half eg in Batang Ai seat only 8728 out of 22 000 residents are registered as voters, according to the latest electoral roll used for the state elections.
The reasons for these are many: lack of personal documents among perhaps hundreds of thousands of the interior population especially among the Penans cause them to be disqualified for registeration as voter. The long distance of the registration offices (post offices and district offices), difficult transports, lack of pro-active registration exercises and voter education combine to deny these natives of their Constitutionally guaranteed voting rights. While in recent years the Election Commission do appoint party representatives to become Assistant Registrars to help with voter registration there are still numerous obstacles and limitations to overcome before their services can bear fruits in significantly increase the enfranchisement levels.
To make it worse the voting rate is rather low –at 70% at this state elections(compared to 77% for West Malaysia). This is because the lack of voter education, bad transport service in rural areas, and the denial of postal voting service to the estimated 50 000 Sarawakians youth working or studying in West Malaysia and elsewhere. All these seems to suggest a pattern to neglect or even suppress the voting rights of natives in the interior.
2.Institutional Framework: weak enforcement
The Election Commission which is appointed through the advise of the Prime Minister, lacks independence which is essential to discharge its duty with impartiality. Lacking investigation and prosecution power the EC depends on the police and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to address criminal and corruption cases during elections. However there is a disagreement with the MACC over the enforcement of the Election Offenses Act, where the MACC insist that it only enforce the Anti-Corruption Act only. The lack of an enforcer for the Election Offenses Act may be the root of rampant vote buying and abuse of government resources by the incumbent parties during this state elections, as happened regularly before.
3.Electoral rolls late and unclean?
Despite the announcement by the Election Cmmision’s deputy chairman that the electoral rolls are clean the checking by a number of our observers in Sibu and Miri found that there are numerous centenarians still found living in the electoral rolls for various constituencies. Worst the electoral rolls for 4 constituencies ie Baleh, Pelagus, Kartibas and Asajaya, were produced only after the nomination day, thus depriving the users of the rolls concerned of the use of the rolls for that duration. This represents a mark of inefficiency by the Election Commission who has been charged by the Constitution to produce the electoral rolls.
4.Nomination: voters rights to objections denied
In most of the nomination centers we found that all the intending candidates were able to get themselves nominated. However the nomination paper of the candidates were in many cases not displayed in such a way to allow for the voters’ inspection. The legal right of the voters to inspect the papers is also restricted by the very short time available for inspection. The nomination process was marred in 1 case where a candidate who is the brother of the Chief Minister was allowed to contest despite his failure to produce the expenditure account for his previous election, as required by the law.
5.Campaign Financing: no enforcement
While the law provide for a spending cap of Rm100 000.00 for the campaign expenses for each of the State Assembly candidate the law lack stipulation on the contributions by 3rd parties, expenses by the parties backing the candidates, and above all, the expenses account by the candidates have never been audited, thus frustrating the intention to keep the election fairer by spending cap;
6.Freedom to campaign curtailed by restrictive police permit and short official campaign period
While both sides of the politics started campaigning ahead of the official campaign period from Apr 6th the police’ harassment of some of the Opposition campaign activities reflect a selective enforcement against campaigning ahead of the official campaign period. Of significant concern is the demand by the police on the campaign organizer to produce permission from long house chief in order for a police permit to be granted for campaign events in long houses. This conditions extend the police’ power to the long houses where previously the long house spaces are wholly administered by members of the long house communities. These restrictions certainly compromised the freedom to campaign by the candidates and their parties, and impact negatively on the right to information by the voters.
7.Media coverage restricted
The mainstream media in various languages, are largely owned by ruling political parties or state agencies. They have continued their pattern to give preference to the ruling parties, with quotas set on the coverage allowed for the Opposition parties. The quotas appear to be lowered as campaign proceeded, where the Opposition parties gained momentum in its campaign in the urban areas. Notably the on-line media which allowed freer coverage of the campaign suffered Distributed Denial of Service attacks, rendering a number of popular web sites viz Sarawak Report, Radio Free Sarawak web site and Malaysiakini to be stopped in the run-up to the polling day.
Above all the interior areas where most of the seats and voters are lack media access and thus remain information-poor.
8.Abuses of Government resources and massive vote buying
The state election witnessed unprecedented abuses of government resources-be it buildings, vehicles, personnel, programs etc to help the campaign of the ruling parties at federal and state levels. Huge allocations were promised and also given ahead of the poll eg to build roads and hospitals, to buy votes-something which is prohibited by Election Offenses Act. A notable example of this is the making of compensation payout to the re-settlers at Sg Asap which is estimated to be about Rm100million.
This is above the widely alleged last minutes covert disbursement of fund to voters and community leaders to induce voter’ support. The setting up of 80 so called enforcement teams could not cover up the lack of intention to enforce the laws as the contact number of these enforcement teams are never disclosed to the public.
9.Polling day: campaigning ban disregarded & observers barred
While the law provide for the stopping of campaigning during the polling day the observations are that in most instances such bans are not observed by both sides. Vehicles carrying party symbols are seen commonly to ferry voters around. One party is also producing how-to-vote cards bearing party logos to be brought in by voters into the polling centers where there are not supposed to be any campaign material.
Local and international election observers were not accredited to observe the elections and to enhance the credibility of the state elections. On the other hands activists from a few human rights and election watch groups were reportedly barred from entering Sarawak by the Chief Minister who invoke the state government’s immigration power.
In the counting stage the refusal of some returning officers to provide copies of the official election results at the polling stations caused protests by the Opposition counting agents concerned.
Despite a record narrow margin of victory in Senadin seat –which was won by a margin of 58 votes, the Returning Officer cited a legal provision to deny the party affected a recount to clear any suspicion over the election of the candidate.
Conclusion: election not free and fair
In view of the weaknesses identified above the 10th Sarawak State Elections failed to conform to the election laws of the country, the regional standards or the international norms for democratic elections. The lack of free and fair elections cast doubt over the legitimacy of the elected representatives and discredit the governing institution formed by these representatives. The argument that Opposition candidates can still win under such conditions ignore the handicaps experienced by the Opposition in participating in the electoral competitions.
1. The Election commission should be re-constituted from among legal experts, retired judicial officers, legal academics and civil society leaders, and that they should be appointed through the Parliament;
2. Nomination period should be extended to 1 week;
3. Extensive voter registration and education should be conducted in the interior areas of Sarawak;
4. The Police Act’s provision which require police permits for any public gatherings should be discarded in respect of the freedom to campaign during campaigning period;
5. In view of the large areas to be covered by candidates the minimum campaign period for Sarawak should be set above 3 weeks/21 day;
6. Sarawakians living outside Sarawak should be allowed postal vote service;
Ong Boon Keong
Chief of Mission
Sarawak State Election Observation Mission(SSEOM)
17th Apr 2011
MEO-Net was formed in 2009 to link up election observer and voter education groups in Malaysia. It has 6 network members: KOMAS, NIEI, MEW, SEW, SAFREL and MALVU.