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POLITICS-MALAYSIA: Calls for Electoral Reforms Met With Violence

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Sep 18 2007 (IPS) - Political tension is rising in Malaysia as the demand by a coalition of opposition political parties and some 26 civil society groups for a clean and fair election is increasingly being met with violence by the ruling, 13-party National Front coalition.

Earlier this month police fired tear gas and shot at protestors, injuring two opposition supporters in the chest, while breaking up a massive opposition rally in Terengganu state where opposition and government are equally matched in strength.

The Sep.8 rally, organised by BERSIH, acronym for a coalition of five opposition political parties and 26 civil society NGOs, was the biggest one organised so far to press the demand for free and fair elections.

BERSIH (the word means clean in the Malay language) has been touring the country mobilising and winning public support ahead of a general election that is widely expected to be called in November, when police began using excessive force adding a new and violent dimension to electoral politics in the country. “The use of such hard force and firing weapons, injuring opposition supporters, is unprecedented in recent history,” said parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang.

Police said the assembly had no permit and was therefore illegal, but opposition leaders insist on their right to peaceful assembly to demand change.

During the melee the national flag was burned, an act the mainstream electronic media has taken advantage of by repeating the scene over and over again, accusing opposition members of being unpatriotic – a serious accusation in a year when the country is celebrating 50 years as an independent nation.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi himself accused the opposition parties of starting a riot in order to blame the government and discrediting his 13-party National Front coalition government.

For their part, opposition leaders have charged that cleverly disguised “agent provocateurs” had burnt the flag and put the blame on them.

“The incident strongly suggests that police harassment has reached new heights against gatherings deemed unfavorable to the government,” Anwar said in an interview with Malaysiakini, an independent online news agency this week. “This is cause for grave concern,” he said.

Whatever the case, tension is mounting as opposition political parties and civil society groups go on a road show demanding major changes in the way the country has conducted 11 general elections since independence in 1957.

The campaign for electoral reforms is a major effort by the long suffering opposition political parties and civil society leaders to level the playing field to ensure free, fair and clean election.

Among the changes they want is abolition of the ‘first-past-the post’ polling system inherited from the departing British colonial authorities that allows the winner with a simple majority to dominate parliament.

Opposition political parties often poll 40 to 50 percent of the national vote but end up with a paltry number of seats in parliament as is the case now. (The opposition together controls only 18 of the 219 seats in parliament although they polled over 40 percent of the national vote in the 2004 general elections)

“This is an outdated system that shuts out minorities, women and indigenous people…their voice is drowned out by majoritarian rule,” said Lim. “It does not reflect the national vote that opposition won in the elections.”

“With the outdated system the government virtually gives itself a huge majority every election,” he told IPS. “We have elections but not representative rule nor democratic practices…it is a camouflage,” he said. “It is time major changes are made to the election system to make it truly representative.”

Other BERSIH demands include an end to gerrymandering of electoral constituencies that takes place once every 10 years and to make the Election Commission an independent authority and end its subservience to the ruling coalition.

Critics also want the government to allow in domestic and international observers and the removal of the discretionary powers of the Registrar of Societies to deny registration for new political parties.

(An example is the Socialist party of Malaysia which has been denied registration for over a decade on grounds that it poses a threat to national security.)

“We also want the high cash deposits for candidates to be reduced,” said Lim Guan Eng, secretary general of the Democratic Action Party or DAP, the largest opposition party in parliament. “It is ridiculous to impose high cash barriers for contesting and still claim we are a democracy. Such methods block off poor people from seeking elected office, leaving the rich to dominate parliament.”

The fees just to contest a parliamentary constituency is Malaysian Ringgit 8,000 (2,293 US dollars).

Another demand is to end the extremely short eight-day campaign period – arguably the shortest of any democracy in the world. “Such a short eight-day campaign period is ridiculously inadequate to convince voters to back the opposition,” said Sivarasah Rasiah, human rights lawyer and vice-president of the National Peoples Party of de-facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

“On the other hand the ruling coalition has all the advantages. It keeps the polls date secret but prepares heavily in the meantime and then springs a surprise by suddenly dissolving parliament,” Rasiah told IPS. ”During the short, eight-day campaign period it (ruling coalition) unleashes the government machinery and mainstream media on us. This is unethical and a serious violation of democratic principles.’’

“Worst the blitz is paid for by public resources that should rightly be also made available to us in equal measures,” Rasiah said. “While we are hounded, refused permits and shot at they are free to assemble and preach directly and over the government controlled mainstream media. It all makes for a sham election and democracy.’’

These are however only some of the more ‘benign’ demands BERSIH is making to ensure a level playing field level for all stakeholders.

Worst of all, some election expert say, is that the electoral roll itself is faulty with the commission failing to remove dead voters and clean up, what opposition party leader’s claim are, thousands of ‘phantom voters’.

“There is a need to completely revise and overhaul the electoral roll because it is heavily compromised,” said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of SUARAM, leading human rights NGO and BERSIH member. “We need a roll that is clean, transparent and one that inspires confidence. Until then elections are just a sham.”

As the pressure mounts the commission suddenly conceded to one of BERSIH’s many demands – use of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting.

Opposition political parties and NGOs under the BERSIH umbrella have upped the ante by announcing a mammoth rally in October to press their case for reforms setting the stage for a major tussle with the ruling National Front coalition.

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