How to steal an election

Faizal Tajuddin, The Malaysian Insider 

Step One: Pretend you’re reforming and making changes. For the better, of course. And make sure people notice it, and to make doubly sure they don’t forget, don’t make the changes too early. Do it late. Very late. A month or two before General Election late. Then you can appear on mass media and go “See? See? It was a struggle and a sacrifice and it was tough but we did it for you. For the people!”

Step Two: Real reform can be dangerous. Especially if one is too comfortable holding on to power. The power is practically a permanent mandate now. An entitlement. And real changes might mean you’d lose that power. So don’t really change anything, appear to change something. A little bit of window dressing or a new coat of paint, something along the lines of: Telling people you’re going to scrap the ISA, but then replace it with something just as nasty. Or tell people they can protest peacefully now, no need for permits, freedom of assembly is upheld etc, blah blah blah, but then designate practically everywhere as non-assembly zones.

Step Three: Really change something. Only this time, something of benefit for powers that be and not for people, then slip in that tiny, innocuous real game-changer along with the big pronouncements and make the necessary amendments at the parliament. Rush all those bills in one day, get it all done and announce it to the media. With any luck, everybody would concentrate on the big public relations “reforms” and ignore that one tiny innocuous nothingness that really changes a whole lot.

Step Four: Celebrate. You just won the election again.

What is that tiny innocuous nothingness that could be an election decider? Just a small amendment to the election law, that’s all.

The midnight rush to pass eight bills should really raise an alarm. That was pretty telltale that something was not right. While the MPs were groggy and caught completely unaware, the bills were passed and it was only the day after that the Bersih committee noticed it and called a press conference to announce the matter. It was a really big deal, and the Bersih committee didn’t mince their words and inform everybody present just what a Big Deal the amendment to the Election Offences Act 1954 was, only to be received by very little coverage by the press.

Well what are the electoral amendments really?

One has got to do with the campaigning period. Previously during the campaign period, all printed materials must have names and addresses of its printer and publisher. The amendment has deleted this particular provision, paving a way for potentially a very dirty campaigning period. Now anybody could print anything at all, defamatory, sexist and racist remarks or whatever allegations they’d want to throw anonymously with zero consequence.

The rest of the amendments have to do with the process on the polling day itself, and these amendments could really decide the election due to a severe lack of transparency the changes introduced and the window of opportunity for serious electoral fraud to happen.

The biggest concern for a fair election in Malaysia was usually due to the phantom voters. A sudden swell on the electoral roll on the EC list, alongside the bussing-in of voters from other districts is what we usually hear about. Phantom voters are not easy to detect on polling day, and the new amendment made it practically impossible.

Previously, party agents are allowed to check on the identity of voters outside of 50 metres perimeter of the polling centres. That provision has now been deleted and now party agents can no longer check the identity of voters anywhere in the constituency.  It was hard enough to check the identity of voters in the previous provision. Now it’s impossible. There’s also a new provision where previously, people other than polling staff and EC officials can’t be anywhere within 50 metres of the polling centres. The new provisions changed the 50 metres perimeter into 100 metres perimeter. You need to have a pair of military binoculars to observe what’s going on in the polling centres at that range. Which ties in with the most sinister of the amendments made thus far.

The latest amendment introduced an even bigger concern, which is the high probability of ballot box stuffing due to the absence of party/candidates agents in the polling station themselves.

The fine print says that candidates’ agents are only allowed at the polling booths at the EC’s stipulated time. Not only does phantom voters go unchecked with the new amendment, non-existing observers or party agents in the polling station makes it possible for electoral frauds to happen on polling day, in broad daylight, in all the polling stations. The ballot box would be left unattended and unmonitored, as the new amendment only allows party agents to observe at the EC’s discretion and we don’t know how long agents are allowed to observe under that stipulated time. That leaves only the EC officials and polling staff with the ballot box in the polling stations probably for hours on end with no party agents or observers to pick up discrepancies. The excuse given was to avoid overcrowding in the polling centres, which is a ridiculous excuse. Malaysian classrooms (which are turned into polling centres) fit 20-40 students on average. The number of people including the presiding officer, polling staff, party agents and observers if they’re allowed in the polling centres (as they should) at all times wouldn’t even exceed 10 people.

Even if the number exceeded 40 people, the need for a transparent electoral process overrides petty considerations such as overcrowding. Not allowing any other observers other than EC officials to be in the polling centres provide a huge window of opportunity for fraudulent practices. Who would be able to see if ballot boxes were stuffed with ballots voting a certain way? Couple that with the new 100 metres perimeter no-go zone, and the polling centres have now been turned into a zone where electoral ballots conjuring tricks could happen and the hope of Malaysian electorates for a fair election is snuffed.

A fair and transparent election would mean that every step of the process in the election period is completely transparent and can be scrutinised by all stakeholders.

From a fair campaigning period to the opening of the poll where the ballot boxes are sealed right in front of stakeholders, to the voting process and all the way to the closing of the poll and the counting process. Every step of the way can be observed not only to avoid fraudulent practices but also to ensure the confidence of the public that the Election Commission is absolutely neutral in running the election. That is why practically every election in the world would have domestic and international observers monitoring each step of the process, not only to avoid or minimise electoral frauds, but to reassure the public that the EC is doing their job independently. Practically every country in the world allows observers with few exceptions.

The presence of international and domestic observers goes a long way in improving the public’s perception that the electoral process is absolutely transparent. Not allowing them only shows that the Election Commission has got something to hide.

Would it be a stretch to say the election has already been decided now that the amendment for the bill of the election act has been passed? Certainly the amendment allows a big gaping window of opportunity for major electoral frauds to happen. It’s the Election Commission’s job to ensure that none of this is supposed to happen. In fact, to ensure and project transparency to the public who is the biggest stakeholder in the electoral process is the primary job for the Election Commission, and a serious breach of trust was committed when the bill passed with little debate and likely escaping the notice of the Parliamentary Select Committee too.

At this stage one has to wonder — whose interest is the Election Commission protecting here? Certainly not that of the Malaysian public or these amendments would never have come to pass. Instead of being more transparent in the running of the election, the EC only severely restrict it at the eleventh hour right before the General Election. This is hands down the biggest screw job the EC has committed on the Malaysian public practically weeks before election. It raises tenfold the perception that the EC colludes with the ruling regime to retain power at whatever cost and erases any little shred of confidence the public might have on the Election Commission.

Does Malaysian EC even project a sense of fair play in the running of election thus far? When even Afghanistan’s election seems much more free and fair in comparison to us, the Malaysian public should really be worried. Not because Afghanistan’s election is rigged, but because the Election Commission in a country where democracy is a pretty new concept and even after 30 years of Taliban rule, civil war and occupation by Russia, the Afghan’s EC tries to conduct the election as fairly and project themselves as fairly as they could to their own population. So what’s the Malaysian EC’s excuse?

If nothing changes in whatever little time is left before the General Election is called, it’s not a stretch to say that the election has been won.