I say significant because though BERSIH was conceived as a civil society initiative in which political parties participated (as opposed to lead) on the basis that political parties, and by this I mean, all political parties, are a part of civil society, it appears that the initiative may have now evolved into a political vehicle. Judging by the article in the Singapore Straits Times, it would appear that this is a perception that some have.
The call for electoral reform is a reasonable one. It is apparent that the system is not a perfect one, both institutionally and in the way it is managed. After the last General Election, Keadilan applied to the High Court for declaratory orders as to how the Election Commission should conduct elections in general. This proceeding was prompted by a desire to clear ambiguities that had become apparent during the last General Election and which marred the public dimension of the General Election. Despite a clear representation that the declaratory orders were not intended to challenge the result of the elections, that being the province of the Election courts and election petitions, the High Court dismissed the action for that reason.
A significant amount of empirical evidence of irregularities and perhaps even improprieties as to the electoral role has been collated. This at the very least warrants close scrutiny of the electoral role as well as aspects of the process itself, and, following that, a public accounting. I believe that this is necessary for the Government to say that Malaysians have sound basis for confidence in the electoral system and for a belief that there are in fact Free and Fair Elections in Malaysia.
It was a desire for such an effort that prompted civil society to found BERSIH.
Being a civil society initiative, BERSIH could say with reasonable certainty that it was a citizens’ movement. The participation of opposition parties in itself ought not be seen as being negative or undermining of the nature of the initiative. The experience of these entities is invaluable for an understanding of the electoral process. Further, I believe that initiatives like these must be inclusive and not exclusive.
Having said that, to allow for a situation where political parties lead, or are perceived to lead, the initiative is then to allow for the creation of a political dimension that is undermining of the objectives of the coalition. This is for two reasons. Firstly, by allowing for political parties to be seen as leading the initiative, it would be natural for some to assume that the initiative is geared towards assisting these parties. If they are, as in this case, political parties that have not been significantly successful in the last elections, it would not be unnatural for some to think that the assertions of irregularities and improprieties are to an extent a manifestation of the frustration of these political parties at losing. The validity of these assertions would then be undermined or even compromised.
We have in fact heard suggestions of this nature from the Government already. This does not augur well for the initiative, especially when it is the political parties that make up the Government that were successful at the last elections.
Secondly, and this more the case in countries like Malaysia where opposition political parties have only limited means to reach out to the rakyat, every opportunity for public positioning of the opposition’s agenda is invaluable. It would, as such, not be unreasonable for some to conclude that the initiative is then being utilized for a political end distinct from the objective of electoral reform. It would not be unreasonable to even form the view that the initiative has been hijacked by the political parties as, in general, a political agenda and methodology are by the nature of the political process distinct from those of civil society.
At the press conference held last week during which a joint memorandum was issued asking for an appointment for a discussion with the Prime Minister, civil society representatives emphasized that their aims were to be distinguished from those of the political parties present. It is apparent to NGOs involved in the issues arising that that there are matters of concern to citizens that require urgent attention and due consideration. It is also apparent that there are those who feel that their cries for reform or help are being summarily dismissed, ignored or blocked out. The willingness of ordinarily placid Malaysians to march is indication enough of a sense of frustration. Independent of the political dimension, these are matters that need to be addressed constructively.
The meetings that have been held between Indian NGOs and the Prime Minister is, I believe, a constructive process. I am grateful for the fact that the Government has not seen it fit to dismiss the grievances of the Indian community after having condemned and acted against HINDRAF. I had expressed a concern as to the possible ‘chilling effect’ of the Internal Security Act detentions (to which I am opposed) on the process of airing these grievances. I am hoping that the Government will approach the question of electoral reform in as constructive a fashion.
Seen from this perspective, the perception that BERSIH is being led by politicians for, possibly, political gain is worrying.
Civil society has much to offer and its value should not be permitted to be undermined. The limited space that civil society has been successful in carving out for itself should be jealously guarded. The effects of the potential damage to the initiative by reason of a perceived political agenda will linger far longer than the political usefulness of the initiative.
The steering committee of BERSIH must therefore take steps to urgently address those factors that have allowed for a perception that it is being led by the opposition if in fact it is not. If it is, then civil society may wish to reconsider the level of involvement of political parties in BERSIH.