BY all accounts, tomorrow’s Cameron Highlands by-election is going to be a closely fought affair that could go down the wire.
The four-cornered fight between Barisan Nasional, Pakatan Harapan and two independent candidates was triggered by the Election Court’s annulment of Barisan Nasional’s Datuk C. Sivarraajh’s victory in the May 9 general election because it found evidence of vote buying.
The usage of an Election Court to strike out the results of an election is in itself unusual, but what is really extraordinary is the sheer number of complaints of abuse or alleged “election malpractices” that the authorities are currently looking into.
In the past (before GE14), there were always murmuring and, on occasion, outright protests over election fraud, money politics, postal vote abuse, usage of government machinery and other complaints involving parliamentary and state elections.
But these complaints, which the Election Commission (EC) should have addressed, by and large fell on deaf ears. Sure, investigations were sometimes conducted over alleged malpractices, but offenders were duly let off with just a warning or a slap on the wrist.
How times have changed.
New EC chairman Azhar Harun, or better known as Art Harun, appears to have galvanised the commission. Since his appointment in September, the lawyer has set about trying to revamp the commission that has had a reputation of being biased towards the government of the day.
Previously, all the chairmen of the commission were former civil servants; Azhar is the first to be appointed from outside the civil service.
I could be wrong, but I believe that Azhar must also be the first EC chairman to engage the electorate via social media. His tweet on Monday is a case in point: “I would like to respectfully ask – has SPR, prior to my time, ever done what is being done now? Please answer honestly.”
The response to this tweet has been generally positive albeit the occasional brickbat.
To be fair to Azhar, he has tried to act on the complaints the EC has received. And there has been a lot – from both sides of the political divide.
In the run-up to the Cameron Highlands by-election, there have been accusations of money being used to bribe voters, government vehicles being misused for campaigning purposes and allegations of undue influence being brought to bear, an offence under Section 9 of the Elections Offences Act 1954.
Azhar says he has used the full purview of the law granted to the EC to address these complaints, but he has warned that the EC will not act beyond its powers.
Admittedly, Azhar has tried his best to explain the role of the EC; however, he may need to do more to explain to the electorate the reach and mandate of the commission. Further action can only be taken by either the police or the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
Regardless of the outcome of these investigations or of tomorrow’s by-election, we still have a long way to go to achieve absolutely free and fair elections.
The Election Reform Committee (ERC) set up in August has been given a two-year mandate to propose changes by studying electoral and other laws that touch on the matters and processes of elections.
The ERC will analyse the need to introduce an election system suitable with the demands of the social order (current needs of the people, politics, economic, socio-culture, and others) and make the necessary recommendations to establish laws that are up to the standards of election management at international level and study the need to introduce laws, especially on the setting up of a caretaker government following the dissolution of Parliament and state assemblies.
These changes, to be implemented before GE15, are expected to make “the EC a robust and credible election management body that will earn the belief and trust of all segments of society”.
Beyond these changes, the EC should also study the implementation of local council elections. Even though this was not a promise in Pakatan Harapan’s GE14 manifesto, many of its leaders have spoken in favour of having elected local government officials.
The other key issue that worries me is the sheer number of by-elections we’ve had since the general election on May 9. In the space of nine months, we’ve had Sg Kandis on Aug 4 last year, Balakong and Seri Setia on Sept 8 last year, Port Dickson on Oct 13 and now Cameron Highlands tomorrow, with Semenyih to follow on March 2.
These six by-elections are costing the taxpayer a lot of money. An average by-election costs us an estimated RM3mil. One was held because of a traffic accident (Balakong), one was due to election fraud (Cameron Highlands) and the other was due to the incumbent stepping down (Port Dickson).
But what is even more worrying is that the other three by-elections were triggered because of the death of the incumbents due to ill health.
In fact, if we go back to GE13 in 2013, we have had an incredible 15 by-elections triggered by health-related deaths! Yes, it’s debatable if these deaths were all preventable (some were due to diseases that could have been contracted after the candidate was elected), but surely it is incumbent on political parties to ensure a clean bill of health of their candidates prior to elections.
Will the ERC propose full medical check-ups for all candidates contesting in GE15? It may be harsh, but candidates with a history of heart issues, for example, or who are in the midst of cancer treatment, should not be allowed to contest unless they are given a clean bill of health.
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