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Friday May 17, 2013

Election reform alone not enough

OVER the last week or so, I had an interesting Facebook conversation with a friend in the Philippines about our respective elections and areas of concern thereof.

I got to know this person, who works in the House of Representatives committee on suffrage and electoral reforms, during an exchange programme to observe the United States presidential election last November.

One of the things I learnt during that trip was the introduction of automated elections in the Philippines as a key step in reforming the electoral system.

This was first implemented in the Philippines’ 2010 elections and subsequently used again in this year’s mid-term elections, which coincidentally were held just eight days after our own momentous 13th general election.

With automation, votes are counted and the results transmitted electronically within hours after the polls close, thereby preventing fraud or manipulation of results during the counting process.

This stands in stark contrast to previous elections when it would take days or even weeks before the results were known.

Automated elections on their own are not the be-all-and-end-all in solving systemic electoral flaws. However, they represent significant improvement by helping to eliminate fraud in the counting and tabulation of votes, which are a vital part of clean and fair elections.

As the former Chief Justice of the Philippines Supreme Court Reynato Puno said: “Full automation will not completely cleanse the dirt in our electoral system. But it is a big leap forward which can lead us to the gateway of real democracy where the votes of the people are sacred and supreme.”

My friend told me that it took the Philippines almost two decades to “fight it out tooth and nail in Congress” for automated elections.

“It was not easy. But it happened. We Filipinos have long struggled for elections that are clean and honest. Manual counting and canvassing never follow the rule of mathematics. It only follows the rule of money and lust for power. Now, politicians cannot do anything about it as they can’t bribe machines which count, canvass and transmit the votes. They invest heavily on vote buying instead,” she said.

She was responding to an article about the Malaysian election results, which pinpointed the influence of money politics on impoverished rural voters as a factor contributing to Barisan Nasional’s victory.

I was intrigued by her comment which seemed to imply an increase in vote buying since the introduction of automated elections in her country. Other posts on her timeline also seemed to indicate that varying amounts were offered for votes in different polling districts.

When I asked her about this, she replied that vote buying had long been present in Philippine elections but was now worsening.

“We have an accurate count but the manner with which people choose candidates is largely dictated by how much they receive from those they are supposed to elect,” she said.

We concluded that a lot remained to be done in our countries, not just in terms of system reforms but also voter education.

Last week I wrote about the urgent need for electoral reform in Malaysia, in particular with regard to the delineation of our parliamentary constituencies, which are grossly disproportionate and make for an uneven playing field.

As dissent continues to rumble over the election outcome, partly as a result of this inequality and partly from allegations of fraud and irregularities, from admittedly difficult-to-prove phantom voters to vote buying, it is imperative for reforms to be made to our election system to make it more equitable for all contesting parties, candidates and the electorate.

Nonetheless, looking at the Philippines’ experience, reforming the system alone is not enough. It must be accompanied by reform in the attitudes of politicians and voters towards elections.

Without this, politicians will continue to try to win elections by whatever means they can and the rural electorate may still fail to grasp the significance of their votes.

A major talking point which has emerged from our election outcome is the urban-rural divide and the attendant lack of political understanding among rural voters as well as their susceptibility to money politics.

It’s going to require a long-term commitment, I feel, to educate these voters about elections and not to sell their votes.

But at the same time there is also a need to educate politicians not to commit fraud in the first place. Politicians must be made to realise that it is unfair, unacceptable and illegal to induce or intimidate voters into voting for them.

The events of the last week have shown that Malaysians want clean and fair elections, from the system itself to the process of voting, counting and tallying of ballots and announcement of results.

An automated system can resolve some of these concerns, but whether or not we decide to consider it, we can and should startchanging hearts and minds with regard to elections.

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