Monday, July 14, 2014

EC impartiality hinges on judiciary, media and civil society, says political scientist Dr. Sarah Birch

Published: 13 July 2014
The Election Commission’s (EC) appointment methods and membership are practically irrelevant when it comes to ensuring free and fair elections, a political scientist said today.
Professor Dr Sarah Birch from the University of Glasgow said what was more important was that the media, the judiciary and the civil society hold the EC to account.
“The qualification and mode of appointment of the EC are less important than the accountability measures. The formal mode (of appointment) doesn’t seem to matter much.
“The EC can even be run by a branch of the government. That’s fine,” said Birch, pointing to Sweden’s EC, which was once run by the tax board.
Birch, who has a Masters and a doctorate in quantitative political science, said that even if some countries ran elaborate measures to ensure the EC members were impartial, the government could always find ways to get the EC to do as they wished.
“So it is up to the judiciary, civil society and the media to hold the EC to account. They are like other civil servants – unlikely to do a good job unless someone is watching. They’ll behave if people monitor them,” said Birch.
Birch was speaking at a public lecture titled “Retaining power through elections: When democracy enables autocracy” at the Kuala Lumpur Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (KLSCAH). The lecture was organised by Prohamm, Bersih 2.0, and the Civil Rights Committee of KLSCAH.
The EC has come under intense criticism from the opposition and electoral watchdog Bersih 2.0, who have accused the commission as well as its chairman of being biased towards the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
But calls for the EC chairman Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof to resign have been ignored.
The EC similarly dismissed accredited election observers Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) and the Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS) findings that the 2013 general election was partially free but not fair.
Birch said that the electoral system in any country would usually get worse before it finally improved, and called this phenomenon an “election tango”.
“In the contemporary world, significant electoral reform, leading to a genuine improvement in election quality, tends to come about following popular protests against electoral malpractice.
“When people periodically and episodically get cheated during election, they get angry. They tend to go out on the streets and protest at the time of elections.
“Then there is mass mobilisation so strong that the government is forced to conduct clean and fair elections. This is what happened with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine 2004, and Georgia in 2003,” said Birch.
She said democratic leaders would also feel compelled to hold free and fair elections if they felt they would garner more support in their country and internationally.
“Take Mexico as an example. Every time after elections, the people protested against electoral fraud and malpractice. And then eventually, after one particularly bad election in 1998, there was top-down reform.
“The government decided they were losing too much legitimacy. They thought they would have more popular support if they had fair elections.
“They won the first time after that, then they lost, then they won again. That’s what happens when you have fair elections,” said Birch.
Last year’s general election in Malaysia sparked off a string of mass rallies protesting the election results and the EC’s seemingly biased conduct.
Pakatan Rakyat (PR) supporters were unhappy that the opposition pact won the popular vote, but still lost to Putrajaya due to alleged gerrymandering and malapportionment.
The rallies, organised by PR and civil society, attracted thousands of Malaysians, but the assemblies eventually died down once the new lawmakers were sworn into Parliament.
Birch said that the first-past-the-post system practised in Malaysia was the easiest electoral system to manipulate because it allows gerrymandering, malapportionment, and manipulation of the eligible population.
“It’s easier to manipulate because of the winner-take-all system that magnifies the power at the constituency level and often also at the aggregate level,” said Birch.
She also said the system invited boundary manipulation, which could enable a party to retain power for long periods with only minority support.
“You only have to shift a few votes. Electoral manipulation is more efficient in first past the post, because you only have to shift a few votes if you do it properly.
“It also allows the manipulation of the eligible population – giving out citizenship to those who support the government,” said Birch, prompting cynical chuckles from the audience.
The government has long been accused of awarding citizenship to Sabah and Sarawak’s illegal immigrants to allow them to vote for Barisan Nasional (BN) in the elections.
Earlier this week, Sabah opposition lawmakers demanded that Putrajaya make public the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) report on illegal immigrants in the state that was submitted to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong two months ago.
They said that the restructuring of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom), as announced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak on July 8 was not enough without a solution to the problem of illegal immigrants in the state.
"We want Najib to make known the content of the RCI report to the public. We have been waiting for two months," Bingkor assemblyman Jeffrey Kitingan told The Malaysian Insider.
Kitingan, who is also Sabah Star party chief, said the RCI would be meaningless without action and a solution to the "Project IC" problem.
The Commission which was set up on September 21, 2012, called 211 witnesses in the proceedings which ended on September 20 last year.
Among the notable witnesses were former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and former Sabah chief ministers, including Datuk Harris Salleh and Datuk Seri Joseph Pairin Kitingan.
Najib announced on June 1, 2012, that Putrajaya had agreed to set up the RCI to investigate problems related to illegal immigrants in Sabah, including the issuance of Malaysian documents to Muslim illegal immigrants under a scheme known as Project IC. – July 13, 2014.

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