Side Views

Malaysia’s elections: Should the international community care? — Ambiga Sreenevasan

OCT 15 — Those in the international community may be forgiven for saying, “Is there a problem with the democratic process in Malaysia?”

In the international arena, our leaders portray Malaysia as a moderate Islamic nation that is built on the democratic principles that are enshrined in our Federal Constitution. The fundamental rights of freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, the right to life and a fair electoral process, are indeed guaranteed under our Federal Constitution.

The reality is, however, far less idyllic. There are serious questions whether these rights are respected and upheld by those in power.

Since before the 1990’s, Malaysians have been pushing for a reform of the system of governance. There has been growing discontent over issues like rampant corruption, abuse of power, deaths in custody and selective prosecution (or persecution), to name but a few of the grouses.

We are increasingly alarmed by the use of race and religion by politicians to divide the people for political gain, with no regard whatsoever for the possible long term consequences of this conduct.

We note with disgust our mainstream media descending to the lowest depths of junk journalism. We are appalled at the growing instances of political violence.

In the clearest example of how low we have sunk, human rights defenders and civil society who are seen as opposing the government are facing ruthless attacks by the government of the day. SUARAM, established in 1989 and who has in the past year been exposing possible corruption by Malaysians in high places in the purchase of Scorpene submarines from France, is suddenly facing investigation by several government agencies.

The mainstream media is once again playing its role in showing no regard whatsoever for presenting the whole truth. In a front page news story, preposterous claims were made that NGOs like SUARAM and BERSIH were funded by organisations like National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Open Society Institute (OSI) for the purpose of overthrowing the government. Directors of SUARAM have been hauled up by enforcement agencies for their expose on the corruption, yet our anti- corruption agency fails to even begin to investigate the claims of SUARAM that a huge commission of RM500 million had been received by a Malaysian entity in the Scorpene deal.

Civil society is now continuously portrayed in the media as the enemy who is seeking to overthrow the government at the behest of foreign powers. These accusations have also been hurled at BERSIH, more so since July last year when we had a successful rally of more than 50,000 people on the streets of KL, clamouring for clean and fair elections. Another rally was held in April this year when more than 200,000 people were on the streets, again asking for electoral reform.

Malaysians do not easily take to the streets. The numbers must mean that there were good reasons why they did.

I will not go into more details of the attacks that human rights defenders have had to face by those in authority or those who had the tacit approval of the authorities. Suffice it to say they have been sustained and relentless.

When asked, our leaders will say that this government is reforming because of the replacement of many oppressive laws, and the apparent move to greater democracy. They will say that after the BERSIH rally last year, a parliamentary select committee for electoral reform was set up and a report issued.

What they don’t go on to explain is what replaces these oppressive laws and what they are doing to effectively implement the PSC recommendations. In my view, the new legislation just does not go far enough, and the important recommendations of the PSC report are largely ignored or poorly implemented.

BERSIH also continues to receive reports of electoral malpractices and the integrity of the electoral roll leaves much to be desired. Our Election Commission does not enjoy public confidence and is not seen by many as independent. This together with all the other issues that plague our system of governance leads to the inevitable conclusion that the next crucial general elections will be seriously flawed.

All the so-called reforms are like attempting to varnish a table that is ridden with termites. It is difficult to fix a system that is fundamentally flawed by building on the same rotten foundation. That is, even if there is real political will to reform.

The Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security which is headed by Mr. Kofi Annan and which has many distinguished members including H.E Dr Ernesto Zedillo former President of Mexico, Dr Madeleine K. Albright and Professor Amartya Sen, issued a ground-breaking report on clean and fair elections dated September 2012.

In his foreword, Kofi Annan states, “The spread of democracy across the world has been one of the most dramatic changes I have witnessed over the course of my career. In country after country, people have risked their lives to call for free elections, democratic accountability, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Elections are the indispensable root of democracy…..”

I make no apologies for quoting from this report at length for I cannot say it better. The report clearly outlines that clean and fair elections are not just about choosing leaders, but are about building a solid framework for a democracy that works for the people. After studies, the following were some of the conclusions arrived at:

1. “Elections with integrity are important to values that we hold dear — human rights and democratic principles. Elections give life to rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the right to take part in the government of one’s country through freely elected representatives, the right of equal access to public service in one’s country, and the recognition that the authority of government derives from the will of the people, expressed in “genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot.

2. Elections are fundamental to the ethos and principles of democracy…..

3. Citizens lose confidence in democratic processes when elections are not inclusive, transparent, and accountable. When elections have integrity, they bolster democracy, respect fundamental rights, and produce elected officials who are more likely to represent their citizens’ interests.

4. But in addition to promoting democratic values and human rights, elections with integrity can also yield other tangible benefits for citizens. Evidence from around the world suggests that elections with integrity matter for empowering women, fighting corruption, delivering services to the poor, improving governance, and ending civil wars…….

5. Electoral accountability, in turn, is associated with lessening government corruption…….

6. Electoral accountability, in turn, has direct benefits for improving representation of the poor……..

7. Even in countries emerging from civil wars — the most difficult of contexts for building democracy — research now shows that when the termination of the war is accompanied by elections in which former combatants run for office and campaign for votes, countries are less likely to revert to civil war. At the same time, however, other studies note that fraudulent elections are correlated with societal violence and political instability…….”

In an interview after the presentation of the report, Stephen Stedman, director of the Global Commission and a political scientist from Stanford was asked what the motivation was for the report.

In speaking of the chairman Kofi Annan, he said that Annan was “driven by his experience of having to deal with several elections in Africa that had become violent and had gone off the rails. And there is a frustration he feels about how little attention had been paid to those places before they blew up”. (The emphasis is mine)

Let us be clear. Malaysia is not facing the problems or the hopelessness that gave rise to the Arab Spring. We are blessed with an abundance of resources and talent. But to assume that all is well and that there is no need to scrutinise the democratic processes, would be a mistake.

We want change before things do blow up in our faces. We do not want an Arab Spring. We want to choose our leaders in clean and fair elections. If there is to be change, we want to do it through the ballot box.

If the government is willing to overlook, and in fact tacitly support, corruption and abuse of power, and promote racism and religious bigotry for its own ends, how can we trust that the elections will be clean and fair?

There is even an admission of malpractices in the past. A Royal Commission of Inquiry has been set up by the government in the state of Sabah in respect of a large number of foreigners having been given citizenships in exchange for votes for more than 20 years. BERSIH has received reports that this practice continues and even in West Malaysia.

Why is this happening? It is because the party that has been in power for 55 years is now feeling vulnerable. As Aung Sang Suu Kyi has famously said, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

So why should one country be bothered about electoral processes in another?

We know that if any such suggestion is made, the immediate diplomatic response is that there will be no interference by one country into such domestic matters of another country. Not that this is entirely true in fact.

As observed of the international community in the commission report “While their rhetorical support for elections with integrity may be constant, their record of responding to flawed elections is not. In some cases, their interest lies in bolstering a preferred candidate, not in an election with integrity per se.

Too often, democratic governments have turned a blind eye to electoral malpractice by regimes and incumbents with whom they have friendly relations”.

And the best answer to why everyone should be interested in clean and fair elections everywhere is stated in the report thus:

“We still live in a world in which states act on their strategic interests. The key lies in reminding democratic governments that their strategic interest is best served by supporting elections with integrity. Not only do democratic governments share an interest in the spread of democracy as a bulwark for international peace, but they must also learn that their bilateral relations are strengthened when their partners have democratic legitimacy earned through genuine elections.”

Malaysia is a member of many important regional and international organisations and appears to enjoy the confidence of its neighbours. We can set valuable examples in the region. We have what it takes to be a role model.

But we can only be that if the example we set is one of a truly democratic system of governance borne out of clean and fair elections. And if we are to be valuable contributors to the global community, then it is in everyone’s interests that our elections are clean and fair.

* Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan is co-chair of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (BERSIH).

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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