Polls in the time of Covid-19


Strict SOP vital: Traditional voting but with very, very strict regulations and restrictions on face-to-face campaigning is still the best way to hold polls during the pandemic.

WITH Malaysia entering a third wave of Covid-19 infections in the wake of the Sabah state polls, members of the public are becoming fearful that another election may further exacerbate the health situation in Malaysia.

Questions are being raised as to whether it is suitable for us to hold elections now, and whether it is possible to defer until the infection rates subside.

Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) political science lecturer Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani says unlike the United States presidential election – which happens every four years and where the next date is set for Nov 3, 2020 – there is still time before Malaysia’s five-year term lapses in July 2023. Hence, we should wait until the pandemic no longer poses a major health threat before holding the next general election.

However, the situation is different for the Batu Sapi by-election and Sarawak state elections. The Batu Sapi by-election is ruled by the 60-day mandate and the Sarawak state polls should be held by Sept 7, 2021 under the Federal Constitution.

“In this context, we have to carry on with the Batu Sapi by-election but precautions need to be taken and standard operating procedures (SOPs) need to be followed.

“The Election Commission (EC) has the power to introduce strict regulations for SOP,” says Mohd Azizuddin.

Some suggestions mooted by Mohd Azizuddin is to ban instances where close contact might happen like house-to-house campaigns and public ceramahs, moving campaigning instead to traditional and social media.

In the July Chini by-election and September Sabah state election, voters were given suggested voting times to reduce crowding.

Masks, temperature checks and hand sanitisers were required at polling stations. Restrictions were also introduced during campaigning such as limiting participants at ceramah and walkabouts.

The SOPs were formulated by the EC, Health Ministry and related agencies.

While the Chini by-election took place fairly smoothly, the number of nationwide Covid-19 infections spiked shortly after the Sabah polls, raising fears of more outbreaks if another election were to happen.

A media personnel who attended the Sabah elections said that enforcement was the biggest problem during the Sabah election.

“Some of the ceramah were quite cramped. I remember being in a tent and there were easily 40 people crammed in it.

“There were walkabouts as well and the ones I saw had barely any social distancing. A lot of the parties just didn’t care, it doesn’t matter what side they were on. It was all the same,” said the witness.

A few parties have said that they will sit out the Batu Sapi by-election to curb the spread of Covid-19. However, the Constitution requires for the seat to be filled within 60 days after turning vacant following the death of former de facto law minister Datuk Liew Vui Keong on Oct 2.

In his opinion piece in The Star on Thursday, constitutional expert Dr Shad Saleem explains that the Batu Sapi by-election is legally unavoidable. The Election Commission also maintains that the Batu Sapi polls still need to be carried out, but this time with stricter SOPs in light of increasing Covid-19 cases.

The only possibility for a postponement of Malaysia’s general elections would be if a state of emergency was declared, says Mohd Azizuddin. This opinion is shared by Shad Saleem.

Instead, other scenarios might take place to address ongoing political turmoil.

“If there are parties who claim they have new numbers to make up the majority, there is still no requirement for a new election.

“An election can only be triggered if the Prime Minister meets the King and the King agrees to dissolve parliament.

“The King can still refuse to accept those grounds for dissolution. He may say that since the five-year term is still there, the governing parties can just switch without going to the polls,” Mohd Azizuddin.

“Another possibility is that the political factions can form a reconciliation government. There are many alternative options and general elections are normally the last option,” he continues.

Whatever will be, Sarawak will still go to the polls by next year, says Mohd Azizuddin.

“There is no provision in the Constitution to delay general elections unless a state of emergency is declared and I don’t think that will happen. But new rules and regulations may be imposed to enforce social distancing and campaigning must be done via media channels.

“We are in the new normal, so some things need to change,” he says.

“Nowadays everyone uses WhatsApp to communicate and I don’t think it would be too difficult to get through to people. We have to use other mediums. Social Media. Facebook. WhatsApp. SMS. Radio.

“We can introduce candidates through traditional and online media but it must be fair. Both government and opposition leaders must be given equal opportunity to appear in mainstream media,” adds Mohd Azizuddin.

In July, Singapore underwent its first pandemic polls which relied heavily on online campaigns as physical rallies and mass gatherings were banned.

In Singapore, there was limited campaigning on the ground. Here, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat of the incumbent People's Action Party, went on a walkabout in the Bedok South estate neighbourhood. — AFPIn Singapore, there was limited campaigning on the ground. Here, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat of the incumbent People's Action Party, went on a walkabout in the Bedok South estate neighbourhood. — AFP

The city-state was able to do this due to its fully urban population. Malaysia, being much larger with many rural constituencies and limited connectivity, would face more challenges emulating that model.

South Korea, which has never postponed general elections even during the Korean War in 1952, also held its general elections successfully in April.

Instead of mass rallies, candidates in masks delivered speeches to small groups.

Extensive sanitisation took place before voters could enter polling stations. Masks, gloves, temperature checks and hand sanitisers were required.

Strict enforcement of SOPs was carried out. Separate polling stations were set up outside hospitals for Covid-positive patients, who were also allowed to vote by mail while those under self-quarantine could cast their ballot after other voters left polling stations at 6pm.

Remarkably, South Korea recorded its highest voter turnout in 16 years at 66%.

A voter wearing a face mask and gloves amid concerns over the covid-19 novel coronavirus exits a booth to cast a ballot during parliamentary elections at a polling station in Seoul in April.—  AFPA voter wearing a face mask and gloves amid concerns over the covid-19 novel coronavirus exits a booth to cast a ballot during parliamentary elections at a polling station in Seoul in April.— AFP

Alternative measures

If the situation worsens and Malaysia will have to undergo another state or general election in the midst of the pandemic, do we have other means of voting without being physically present at the ballot box?

Mohd Azizuddin doubts that Malaysia will be able to conduct fully online voting at this moment. Even developed countries like Germany and Japan still prefer physical voting, he says.

“In the United States where there are semi-computerised voting systems there have been flaws like what happened in Florida in 2000 which wrongly declared a win for George Bush when it should have gone to Al Gore.

“Many do not feel secure with online voting. If you observe the recent PKR election, there was chaos with online voting. This means we are not yet ready for it,” he says.

“We do not have the facilities or infrastructure to accommodate that kind of online voting and it has never been tried before.

“But postal voting might be a possibility with the right agencies, like Pos Malaysia, but they will have to be prepared to manage something as large as the general elections,” he says.

A nationwide postal voting system will require immense preparation and coordination.

The best option, according to Mohd Azizuddin, will be traditional voting, but with very, very strict regulations and restrictions on face-to-face campaigning. Most importantly, we need stern enforcement.

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