|Fears of phantom voters, vote buying, and media bias cloud Malaysia poll
Nearly all of Malaysia agrees the elections will be the closest ever, but opinions diverge on another key question: will the contest be free and fair?
“Yes,’’ says the government, which touts recent reforms including the use of indelible ink to avoid multiple voting and expanded overseas postal balloting for the polls due by June, AFP reports.
“No,’’ say activists and opposition parties whose rallies for electoral reform have triggered clashes with police and who warn “massive’’ bias and fraud could taint the vote.
“The only thing we can do is minimize the fraud. But it will not be eradicated,'' said Ambiga Sreenevasan, co-chair of Bersih, a coalition that spearheaded two protests by tens of thousands of people in 2011 and 2012.
Elections have to be called before the end of April.
Since a strong opposition showing in 2008, speculation had mounted the ruling Barisan Nasional bloc, in power since 1957 independence and one of the world's longest-serving regimes, could be dethroned.
But the opposition faces an uphill slog. Observers say Barisan has tilted the playing field decisively over the decades, one factor favoring an expected narrow government victory.
“Malaysians vote freely, but they do not have a fair playing field for the election,'' said Bridget Welsh, a political analyst at Singapore Management University who said a completely level field would likely lead to an opposition win.
Dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – Malaysia's most powerful party – Barisan has produced impressive economic growth over the decades, and calls the three-party opposition alliance inexperienced.
The opposition, however, portrays UMNO as an oppressive and corrupt force, and promises deep reform.
Malaysia has a history of past election fraud allegations – including a case of a voter who would have been 128 still on the electoral role, vote-buying, and army officials filling out ballots for soldiers.
But Bersih warns the elections will be Malaysia's “dirtiest ever,’’ saying the electoral roll is full of irregularities including large numbers of registered yet unaccounted-for voters.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim recently told AFP that Selangor, a key state the opposition won in 2008, has seen a swell of sudden new voter registrations, 138,000 of whom cannot be traced.
“So of course we believe this is due to phantom voters,'' he said.
Even if polling is clean, Bersih says Barisan-implemented structural biases mean it could win enough seats to form a government with just 20 percent of the popular vote.
Many key Barisan seats are in sparsely populated rural areas while opposition strongholds are typically crowded urban zones, giving the pro-Barisan votes inordinate weight.
The Election Commission also is widely viewed as pro-Barisan – which it denies – while Najib's government controls mainstream media through licenses.
“The issues are clear: malapportionment, gerrymandering, independence of the electoral commission, mainstream media bias, vote-buying and now real questions about the electoral roll itself,’’ Welsh said.
Pressured by Bersih, Najib set up a panel to study reform. Its recommendations last year included use of indelible ink, a campaign period of at least 10 days, and expanded voting for overseas Malaysians who generally seen as opposition-leaning.
“Malaysia's electoral system is stronger than ever,'' a spokesman for Najib's office said recently.
Paul Low, president of the anti-graft Transparency International Malaysia, backed that view, saying the reforms and intense public focus on the issue could make them the “cleanest’’ polls ever held in the country.
“No other election has been watched more closely than this. If people win by methods that are not honest, the backlash from the public will be bad,'' he said.
Bersih, however, insists much more needs to be done, particularly a thorough electoral roll clean-up.
An ongoing government inquiry has heard testimony that tens of thousands of illegal immigrants in the key state of Sabah were given citizenship in recent decades in the expectation they would vote Barisan, heightening fraud fears.