IT feels like only yesterday but it’s been three years this week since the historic Bersih rally of 10 Nov 2007 that demanded for free and fair elections. For certain, that 40,000 strong rally, together with the subsequent Hindraf demonstration in Kuala Lumpur, was partly responsible for the political tsunami of the 2008 general election.
“The Bersih rally allowed Malaysians of all backgrounds to come together, and feel empowered by a common goal in democracy,” Bersih steering committee member and resource person Wong Chin Huat explains in an e-mail. “It also encouraged many Malaysians to come forward to complain about electoral irregularities. Today, voter registration campaigns are everywhere,” he adds.
Bersih will be relaunched as Bersih 2.0 this Wednesday on the third anniversary of its historic rally. Is it still relevant? And should the public still care about what the movement is up to now since the 2008 elections brokered a new political landscape for Malaysians?
The difference between Bersih 2.0 and before is that the movement for clean and fair elections will now be led solely by civil society, as Bersih 2.0 chairperson Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan articulates in an interview with The Fairly Current Show.
Bersih’s forerunner was a forum of political parties known as the Joint Action Committee for Electoral Reform. Bersih, meanwhile, was a coalition of political parties and civil society organisations. Now, Bersih 2.0 will be independent of political parties. “We can see the maturing of Malaysian politics where electoral reform is increasingly embraced by civil society,” Wong, who is also a political scientist, observes.
That piece of good news aside, Bersih’s demands for electoral reform remain just as important and relevant today as it did before. And perhaps these electoral reforms are even more critical since there is more at stake with the nation so much closer to a political tipping point.
Ambiga is adamant that some of these electoral reforms can be easily implemented. For example, automatic voter registration, which even Umno Youth supports, and the use of indelible ink to address the issue of phantom voters.
“Automatic voter registration should be a matter of course since we have an identity card (IC) registration system already in place,” she argues in a phone interview. “Unless of course, there is something wrong with our IC system?” The Barisan Nasional (BN) government has refused to consider automatic voter registration.
Indeed, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz has said that automatic voter registration is tantamount to forcing people to vote. Ambiga says that argument is flawed because automatic registration does not equate mandatory voting. “The idea is to allow everyone who is entitled to vote easy access to vote. It should be the government’s top priority to make it easier for people to exercise their right to vote,” she says.
Ambiga also points out that the use of indelible ink for voters was already approved by the Election Commission (EC) for the 2008 elections but was then withdrawn because of the cabinet‘s instructions.
“They said there was fraud involved regarding the ink and yet till today, nobody has been charged,” Ambiga, who is the former Malaysian Bar president, observes. She posits that the reason these do-able electoral reforms have not been put in place is because it “does not suit the-powers-that-be”.
Ambiga stresses that Bersih 2.0’s main agenda is to ensure there is no fraud in the elections, and that each election is won fairly. Among others, its aim is to see the electoral roll cleaned up, free and fair media coverage for all candidates, and that there is strict compliance with the Elections Offences Act. Indeed, the EC and the authorities seem unable to act despite attempts at vote-buying whether in Sibu, Hulu Selangor, Galas or Batu Sapi.
Apart from these tasks, Bersih 2.0’s most immediate mission is to educate the public about the impending delineation exercise. The movement will be launching a report in due course that will demonstrate how unreasonable the 2003 constituency delimitation of Selangor was.
Ambiga notes that some parts of the 2003 delineation exercise did not make sense but the redrawing of those electoral boundaries was implemented in any case.
Bersih 2.0’s plan is to get the public to participate in the next delineation exercise which can begin anytime from March 2011. “The public can take part in this process.
“It does not mean the EC will listen to the people but the public can make it as difficult as possible for the EC (to redraw boundaries unfairly),” Ambiga says.
She adds that that the purpose of a proper delineation every eight to ten years should be to ensure that each vote is approximately equivalent in worth. Over the years, however, and as recently as the Hulu Selangor by-election, the EC has been accused of gerrymandering to give the BN an unfair advantage.
Wong explains that delineation is a complex issue for most people. And so, Bersih 2.0 will be highlighting just three criteria in minimising gerrymandering for voters to look out for when the EC announces its delineation exercise which must be completed by March 2013.
“Even if the EC doesn’t propose changes for the current boundaries for some constituencies, voters can still question these boundaries,” he says. Wong notes that with the current electoral boundaries, for example, the largest state seat of Sri Serdang has 50,000 voters while the smallest parliamentary seat of Sungai Besar has 34,000 voters hence making a state seat much bigger than a parliamentary one. Other discrepancies include neighbours belonging to different constituencies, and parliamentary and state seats cutting across several different local authority jurisdictions instead of just belonging to one.
“The delineation exercise has become a partisan tool that is used to increase the likelihood of winning for the incumbent. We’re not asking for everything to be changed. We just want to rationalise the existing boundaries by eliminating the current deficiencies,” Wong says.
Once Bersih 2.0 is launched, it will use its Selangor report to educate voters in Selangor as a pilot project for the nation. Additionally, Wong says the movement will provide training to voters who want to understand the process better so that they can challenge the EC.
“The upcoming delineation exercise can affect the next general election. It all depends on when the elections will be called,” Ambiga says.
Making it matter
Wong states that Bersih’s work is important because its core mission is institutional reform “which is substantially different from merely changing the government”. He notes that many voters may not want to give “unconditional support” to Pakatan Rakyat, preferring instead to invest in reforming the country’s political institutions.
“If we can convince the public that clean politics is where this nation’s future lies — rather than a 100-storey mega tower — the EC would have to ensure they behave professionally or voters will revolt by punishing BN for opposing the modernisation of Malaysian politics,” Wong predicts. Additionally, if the EC does not respond to correct the problems of gerrymandering, the next elections will suffer from a lack of legitimacy no matter how big the victory for whichever party.
Ambiga says the EC, thus far, does not appear unwilling to meet and listen to Bersih’s demands. In fact, the EC has scheduled a meeting with Bersih 2.0 on 9 Nov 2010, a day before its launch. “However, whether or not the EC responds with concrete reforms is left to be seen,” Ambiga says.
For me, the Bersih 2.0’s appeal and importance lie not just in its ability to galvanise people in a common, inclusive and non-partisan cause for democracy. Its appeal for me, as a citizen, is its aim to ensure that every single person’s vote counts, and counts fairly. After all, we are constantly told that Malaysia is a free and fair democracy because we have elections once every five years. But we cannot be a democracy just because we have elections. Our elections must also be clean and fair. If not, what would be the point of voting and the value of our democracy?
Jacqueline Ann Surin covered the 2007 Bersih rally and then was told she could not write about it for fear that the newspaper she was working for would be shut down. She believes that democracy can only work with the effort of engaged citizens.