(New York) - Government restraints on expression, assembly and access to state media will deny Malaysians a fair vote in the March 8 general elections, Human Rights Watch said today.
The authorities’ manipulation of the electoral process appears aimed to ensure that the ruling coalition maintains its two-thirds parliamentary majority.
“Once again, elections in Malaysia are grossly unfair to the opposition,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Malaysia’s ruling coalition is too comfortable with the status quo to allow reforms that would level the playing field.”
On March 8, Malaysians will vote for the national parliament. Since 1969, the ruling Barisan Nasional, a coalition consisting of 14 parties, has held a two-thirds majority in parliament, which enables it to amend the constitution at will. Opposition parties currently hold 9.6 percent of the seats in parliament.
Freedom of expression, association and assembly
Malaysian law and practice allow free campaigning for the ruling coalition while placing severe restraints on the opposition. For instance, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahman Badawi on March 1 was able to hold a rally of 20,000 supporters. But police have repeatedly blocked attempts by opposition parties to hold election rallies by refusing to issue the permits required for any gathering of four or more people.
In November 2007, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih), a loose alliance of almost 70 civil society organizations and several political parties, organized an orderly march and rally by some 40,000 Malaysians. In response, police used excessive force, including tear gas and chemical-laced water on peaceful protesters.
The government has routinely used the specter of ethnic violence to deter public demonstrations and silence government critics. On February 16, three days after Abdullah dissolved parliament, police officers used tear gas and water cannons to disperse a peaceful crowd of some 200 Malaysian Indians from the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf). Hindraf has not been permitted to register as a political party, and has repeatedly been denied permits when they sought, such as on this occasion, to hold a peaceful demonstration.
“When opposition leaders and civil society groups critical of the government try to organize rallies, they are blocked at every turn,” said Pearson. “Yet the usual excuses about unruly protesters and blocked traffic are never mentioned when the ruling coalition wants to get its supporters out on the streets. ”
The government has long threatened opposition politicians with provisions of the broadly worded Sedition Act. In addition, since the draconian Printing Presses and Publications Act places the burden of proof on defendants in defamation cases, opposition parties are self-censoring for fear of being hit hard by libel suits if they critique the establishment.
Curbs on the media
Government interference in media reporting is not new to Malaysia, but has become even more contentious during election campaigning. An election observer in Malaysia told Human Rights Watch that monitoring of state television and radio had turned up no opposition candidate presence. The state media are the two most important avenues for candidates to communicate their messages to voters, particularly those in rural areas.
In late January, Bernama, the Malaysian National News Agency reported that Deputy Information Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamid conceded the lack of fairness in the state media. He said that the ministry would need to study “whether allowing opposition leaders to campaign through Radio Television Malaysia in the next general election will benefit the people.”
Freedom of the media is further hampered since all private free-to-air television channels are owned by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a founding member of the ruling coalition and Malaysia’s largest political party.
Because Malaysian law requires all publications to obtain permits to operate on a yearly basis, the state can easily shut down those that are critical of the government. The minister of internal security, who is currently also the prime minister, has discretion to grant, revoke or suspend any publication prejudicial to public order, morality or security, or that is likely to alarm public opinion. Newspapers such as the Tamil language daily, Makkai Osai, are self-censoring to avoid being shut down.
On February 15, the online Malaysiakini site reported that the Chinese-language Oriental Daily editor issued an election-related “guideline” to staff. The guideline suggested the newspaper should avoid placing opposition news prominently, mentioning the opposition’s campaign to block the Barisan Nasional’s goal of a two-thirds majority, or discussing any disputed issues in Chinese communities. The Oriental Daily has had difficulty renewing its license in recent years.
“The Malaysian government has ensured that state radio and TV only cover the ruling coalition and that newspapers report on the opposition at their own risk,” said Pearson.
Irregularities in electoral roll registration and certification of election results
Irregularities in the voter rolls and other elements of the electoral process raise concerns that the government will seek to manipulate votes in closely fought districts. While some individual problems may be simple error, they highlight the need for effective and impartial monitoring by the Election Commission and national election monitors.
Bersih, the coalition for clean and fair elections, has documented severe irregularities in the voter rolls. It found that in several areas a large number of voters were suddenly transferred en masse from one district to another. According to Bersih, some voters discovered that their electoral registration was changed without their knowledge to locales outside their home districts.
In one case, a voter found that her registration had been changed back to a residence she had not occupied for 14 years. Others have found that despite registering a change of address some time ago, they have not been reassigned to polling stations reflective of their new addresses. Still others, who had never registered, found that their names mysteriously appeared on the electoral roll. One voter in Penang went to register, only to find that she allegedly had done so when she was 17 months old. Some voters who used the mail to register to vote discovered registration procedures had not been completed in time for them to be eligible to vote in the upcoming election.
Other anomalies reported by Bersih involve multiple registrations, in one case 40 individuals are registered at a single address. In other cases, family members living together are listed at different addresses. Other registrations use nonexistent addresses. Almost 9,000 voters who were born more than 100 years ago (two were reported to be 128 years old) are still enrolled to vote, raising suspicions about phantom voting. No matter what the offense, the voter roll, once gazetted, cannot be challenged in court.
Bersih is also concerned with postal voting, limited to police and army personnel, and overseas students. More than 221,000 voters use postal votes, but the tallied votes are not necessarily counted among those from voters’ home districts. Although the Army Div 2 Base in Georgetown, Penang, houses only a security guard, some 500 voters are registered to that address. A lack of transparency raises questions about how votes are assigned, including concerns that they may be arbitrarily allocated to benefit districts where the vote is close.
“Voters in Malaysia deserve a chance for every vote to count and count equally,” said Pearson. “Given the vast array of anomalies in the electoral rolls, this looks increasingly unlikely.”
Human Rights Watch urged the Malaysian government to protect the constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and assembly for all parties. The government should not use laws to unfairly penalize opposition politicians, and it should ensure that all political parties have equal access to state media. Human Rights Watch called on national election monitors to thoroughly investigate any claims of electoral fraud and irregularities, and to provide for greater transparency by posting vote tallies outside polling stations before votes are transferred to the Election Commission.