Democracy Lab

Ghostbusters

Malaysia’s pro-democracy activists might not win Sunday’s election. But they could win the battle against electoral fraud.

Muhamad Nur Jihad is a 25-year-old man with Down syndrome who lives with his father in the Malaysian city of Shah Alam. He's never registered as a voter. So imagine his father's surprise when Muhamad Nur recently received a letter in the mail informing him that he's set to vote in the approaching general election on May 5. Who, precisely, added him to the electoral roll without his knowledge? "This may just be the tip of the iceberg," Muhamad's father, Ruslan Abdul Razak, told the press. 

Weirder things have happened in Malaysian elections. Since 1959, voters here have consistently returned to power the ruling coalition, known today as Barisan Nasional (BN). Decades of single-party rule have hindered Malaysia from pursuing the sorts of reforms (including reform of the electoral system) that could have fostered healthy political competition and democratic maturity. And that, in turn, has fostered a long and convoluted history of election fraud -- including a phenomenon that civil society watchdog groups refer to as "dubious voters." 

The ranks of the dubious include eligible persons who appear more than once on the electoral roll, who cannot be traced because their home addresses are missing or incomplete, who are listed as residents at addresses where they don't actually live, whose genders in the roll conflict with what's recorded in their identity documents, or who have died from old age but have remained on the roll nonetheless. Some, like Ruslan's son, are people who have never registered but suddenly find themselves mysteriously added to the list of eligible voters. In Malaysia's Bornean state of Sabah, a good many were illegal immigrants, who were given citizenship documents and registered as voters in an elaborate scheme by government officials dubbed "Project IC." In return for the gift of citizenship, it's said, these newly enfranchised voters could be counted on to express their loyalty to the government at the ballot box. The scheme is the subject of an ongoing commission of inquiry. 

Part of the problem begins with the way voters are registered. The law here doesn't grant Malaysians automatic voting status. (Voting itself is not compulsory.) Citizens aged 21 and older must register with the Election Commission if they want to vote. But the registration process is a mess. Only paper applications are accepted, and half a dozen different agencies are in charge of processing them. Besides the Election Commission itself, political parties, the armed forces, post offices, and two other units under the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Rural Development have the power to add voters to the rolls. For this election, 13.3 million people are registered to vote (some 2.4 million of them since the last general election in 2008). 

Until recently, educating the public on the intricacies of election fraud was hard. Few laypeople could be bothered to comb through the roll looking for discrepancies, and the technical intricacy of the subject involved made it difficult for many citizens to get interested. One of the earliest groups, Malaysians for Free and Fair Elections (Mafrel), which was set up in 2003, struggled to reach a broader audience due to its lack of resources. But awareness took a quantum leap forward in the run-up to the 2008 election. That was when popular anger began to mount over other election-related problems, like the lack of media access for opposition parties and the perceived subservience of the Election Commission to the executive (even if hard data on alleged electoral fraud wasn't readily available). 

When all the votes were finally counted, it turned out that the opposition People's Pact, led by Anwar Ibrahim, had stripped BN of its customary two-thirds majority in the national parliament (though the ruling coalition still retained enough support to keep its control over the government). That remarkable result coincided with the rise of the Bersih ("Clean") reform movement. Bersih held its first street rally in November 2007, followed by two others in July 2011 and April 2012. Demonstrators called for electoral reforms, including a clean-up of the electoral roll and automatic voter registration (viewed as less susceptible to politically motivated tampering). Some also believe that the People's Pact could have scored more seats in parliament in 2008 if not for gerrymandering as well. 

At first civil society groups met with a sluggish response from the public. So the activists decided to roll up their sleeves and tackle the issue of reform on their own. A team called the Malaysian Electoral Roll Analysis Project (MERAP) trawled through the roll, identifying various kinds of problematic voter registrations. The Association for the Promotion of Human Rights (Proham), a band of retired national human rights commissioners, campaigned for revision of the clause in the election law that limits the ability of the courts to review inconsistencies in voter rolls. A grassroots outfit called Tindak ("Action") Malaysia began voter education courses and trained thousands of volunteers to monitor the balloting process and counting of votes. 

The Election Commission was forced to respond. In 2010, it met with delegates from the Bersih movement who presented it with memoranda on electoral reform. In 2012, commission members met with representatives of MERAP to discuss alleged discrepancies; the commission subsequently removed some dubious voters from the rolls. To its credit, commission representatives have also willingly faced public ire at town hall-style meetings

For this election, the authorities have introduced several measures, some of which remain controversial. One example is indelible ink, which is to be used for the first time. Instead of following the international best practice of marking voters with ink after casting their ballots, however, the Election Commission has opted to mark voters before they go into the polling booths. Bersih cried foul, noting that this could lead to the accidental staining of ballot papers, which might delay the voting process or spoil cast votes. 

The run-up to this election has witnessed a level of grassroots mobilization never seen before in any Malaysian election. Using the Internet, citizens abroad have organized themselves to lobby for the right to be postal voters, which until this election had been denied to Malaysians overseas other than students or those serving in the diplomatic corps or military. Various social media campaigns and local movements have started in foreign cities where Malaysians reside (from London to Shanghai), asking them to fly home to vote if they have the means. Funds were raised to help with the cost of travel for those who couldn't afford it. 

Since the last election five years ago, many Malaysians have been finding their voices and gaining the courage to push for election reforms through facts, research, training, and public awareness. This has been the best way to rebut BN propaganda that has tried to equate the Bersih street protests with the chaos and bloodshed of the Arab Spring: Malaysia's peaceful reformers have shown that change can be carried out calmly and rationally. Yet a host of other issues -- the economy, the cost of living, and race politics -- are also set to play a big role in this election. Whatever the outcome of the vote, there's little doubt that Malaysians will continue to demand that their government put a priority on electoral reform.    

ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

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