And so the General Election has come and gone and the Barisan Nasional has been returned to power at the Federal level with a reduced majority. Concerns that the election process were unfair from the systemic standpoint brought into focus by the Coalition on Free and Fair Elections (Bersih), and would become even more so during on election day, have spiraled into unequivocal assertions of wholesale electoral fraud. The extent of the matter is such that even the international press has felt obliged to air concerns on the part of some quarters that the elections were hijacked.
The Pakatan Rakyat thinks so, as do a sizeable number of Malaysians, enough for several rallies on the subject to have been more than convincingly attended by Malaysians. The anger and disappointment being expressed goes beyond the normal frustrations of a voter whose candidate was not returned; it would be foolish to characterize it as such. It cannot be overlooked that, as rhetorical as it may seem, some have denied the legitimacy of the current government.
Much of this anger is directed at the Election Commission whose duty it is to ensure that all election officers shall act with fairness, impartiality and in compliance with the Federal Constitution. Some have asked for the Election Commission to resign. Lim Kit Siang, whose DAP has the second largest block of parliamentarians, has called for a bipartisan parliamentary committee to be put in place to recommend a replacement Election Commission.
No matter how one looks at it, it is manifest that the purity of the electoral process in the 13th General Election is severely under question. It requires more of a response from the Government that the sweeping dismissiveness we have seen thus far. Bersih, to public acclaim, has initiated the establishing of a “People’s Tribunal”. Rather than rejecting as the whimsy of a group of un-subservient non-governmental organisations - and it is prudent here to note that Tun Mahathir initiated a similar tribunal on war crimes not too long ago on the basis that the criminals, as he saw them, would not be brought to justice by a system they were very much a part of – the Government should view the idea as one that it should support.
For one, it is in line with the national reconciliation that the Prime Minister promised on election night. More fundamentally, the Government should support the idea – perhaps by advising the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to establish a Royal Commission on the matter – for it being a means to allow the truth to emerge, and to that end, a conduit by which the frustrations of a sizeable section of the community can be channeled.
It would not be sufficient to point to the courts, as some have done, as a means of addressing the matter of electoral fraud. For one, in as much as the Chief Justice may be trying to rebuild public confidence in the Judiciary there is still some way to go on that journey. There are still traces of the suborning of the institution by the Mahathir Administration, not least the amendment to vital provisions of the Constitution, as is the lingering perception that the courts may not be as cut off from the Executive as they should be. It is of no value to say, as one UMNO parliamentarian did recently, that Anwar Ibrahim or other members of the opposition seem to have no problems with the courts in light of his utilizing the judicial process to gain redress for defamation. That is a facile point of view that does not do justice to the complexities of the subject of judicial independence.
For another, in the minds of many, the perceived electoral fraud appears to have been coordinated and to that end had a systemic nature to it. Many point to the revelations that have sprung from the on-going Royal Commission on Project IC to underscore their concerns that foreigners voted in the elections. If true, this necessarily involved state actors who may have well abused powers in doing what they did. This is a matter that the Election courts may not be in a position to address as fully as the situation warrants.
The Election courts are creatures of statute. They are limited in the scope of their scrutiny. In part this is due to a restrictive approach that the apex court has over time laid down. This requires such courts to act strictly by reference to the legislation that circumscribes such courts, rather than the underlying purpose of the law. As such, though the courts recognize the need for due emphasis to be given to the overriding principles of democracy, and the need to protect the purity of the election process, they are often times left powerless to deal with what might reasonably be perceived as electoral impropriety by an unduly strict interpretation of the legislation imposed on them by the apex court.
This approach has left lawyers and petitioner having to navigate through a minefield of procedural obstacles that have ultimately drastically reduced the number of, otherwise potentially, successful challenges. The strictness of this approach has, in my respectful opinion, undermined the right of the voter to a free and fair election and the associated right of meaningful access to justice. As was observed by Justice David Wong Dak Wah, now Judge of the Court of Appeal, in 2008:
“In my view if a 'strict observance' approach is adopted by the courts, those rights will definitely be diluted. Take the case of the right of access to justice. If a 'strict observance approach' is adopted, no citizen will be able to act for himself or herself to file an election petition because surely as night follows day the petition would be knocked out by preliminary objections. Further if the respondents' contention is sustained, the petitioner will have to go through the relevant provisions of the Election Act, Election Offences Act or Election (Conduct of Elections) Regulations 1981 with a fine tooth comb and put the relevant provision in the petition. That would be a task which a petitioner will not be able to fulfill. I say that for the simple reason that day in day out in our courts, judges, Sessions Court Judges or Magistrates have seen it fit to amend charges in criminal cases when they held that the charge had been wrongly framed by the prosecution. In those criminal cases, the charges are drafted by qualified lawyers and yet they had been found to be wrong. So in election cases, what chance does a person who wants to file an election petition himself or herself have? My answer would be next to none and that would in my view make the constitutional right of access of justice an illusionary one. The remedies of law should be accessible to the ordinary people and laws should not be interpreted in such a manner that only rocket scientist can access remedies in the law as that cannot ever be the intention of Parliament.”
Having regard to the nature of the complaints made public thus far, challenges would in effect require the mounting of cases of either corrupt practice or electoral offences. This would require the petitioners to state from the outset, with great specificity akin to the framing of a criminal charge, the exact wrongful act done, the time and place of the wrongdoing, and the persons involved. The nature of things may impede that process.
Some may recall that Zaid Ibrahim’s election petition in respect of the by-election for the Hulu Selangor parliamentary constituency put in issue amongst other things, Najib Razak’s promise at a rally that the Government would donate RM3 million to a school in the constituency if the Barisan Nasional candidate were returned. Though the promise was a matter of public record and the subject of intense national discussion, the petition was struck out as Zaid Ibrahim had not pleaded in the petition itself the identity of persons in the hall at the time the promise was made. Zaid had the information and was ready to subpoena the persons concerned at trial, but never made it that far. His well-intentioned desire to protect the individuals cost him the opportunity.
This is not to say that the aggrieved should avoid the courts. They must seek recourse and present their respective cases as best as they can. I doubt however that the court actions will in themselves serve to assuage the discontented amongst us.
It would equally be irresponsible for the Government to continue to allow attempts to divert attention from the problem by means of racist and extremist rhetoric. This is going to do great damage to the nation, and deepen fissures that highly divisive policies, and an extremely racialist election campaign that the Barisan Nasional unashamedly took credit for, have created. It is truly a sad state of affairs that Malaysians in this time and age are being subjected to this kind of venom. And it says much about the Barisan Nasional government that Malaysia remains one of the very small group of countries that have yet to ratify the 1966 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
In the same vein, it would be foolhardy for the Government to resort to strong-arm tactics involving the suppression of peaceable assembly and expression. This would only serve to inflame the situation.
The way forward for the Government on this issue is self-evident. It needs to confront the subject and deal with it in a transparent and accountable manner. This obvious truth makes it equally plain that Najib Razak may have no choice in the matter.
(This comment first appeared in my 'Rule of Law' column in The Edge on 18.05.2013)