Malaysia's Najib Calls for Electoral Reform

Apparently bending to widespread criticism of a government crackdown on a July 9 march demanding electoral reform, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said Tuesday that a parliamentarycommittee is to be formed to seek to reform the system.

The announcement of the select committee, to be formed as soon as possible, Najib said, appears to answer a central demand of the reform group Bersih, a coalition of good-government organizations backed by opposition parties to clean up the electoral process.

The big question, however, is how soon the select committee can act, and whether the reform provisions it comes up with – if any – could be put in place before national elections expected to be called late this year or early next. In that, the announcement of the committee carries certain dangers. If it is still meeting when the election comes and goes, the decision to create it is likely to be regarded as a public relations gesture.

Wong Chin Huat, one of the leaders of Bersih, told Asia Sentinel that Najib must hold up the polls until the reforms can be implemented.

Bersih itself, in a prepared statement, said it welcomed Najib’s announcement of a bipartisan committee, asking that immediate reforms be carried out before the next state and general elections and that other reforms be put in place within two years after the formation of the committee.

The process is bound to be complicated and subject to possible delay. The Malaysian constitution must be amended after the legislative, policy drafting and enforcement mechanisms are finished, then laws must be put in place by the executive branch to carry out the mandate.

That will require an automated voter registration system. The government has already said it is creating a so-called biometric registration system which would use fingerprints or other biometric data for voter identification. Bersih, however, charges that the system is open to abuse and wants a system in which voters will be marked with indelible ink once they have voted.

The government took a severe beating in the international press after police cracked down on the so-called Bersih 2.0 rally, blocking entrances to Kuala Lumpur, dousing the marchers who got through with water cannons and firing tear gas at them despite the fact that most were determined not to fight back. Nonetheless, anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 marchers got through depending on who was doing the counting. Some 1,700 people were arrested, many for merely appearing in yellow tee-shirts, the Bersih color.

Najib’s international image took a further beating when it was discovered that in an effort to turn around its negative image the government had paid RM86 million in two contracts to a British public relations company to plant favorable interviews and news stories with the international media. The contract was withdrawn abruptly when its existence was exposed by a Sarawak NGO, the Sarawak Report.

Just days ago, Najib was likening the Bersih marchers to the hooded rioters that torched buildings and caused violence in London and other cities. The abrupt about turn is being regarded in Kuala Lumpur as an indication that the government crackdown and attempt to demonize the marchers has backfired badly and hurt Najib’s standing.

The prime minister reportedly is already under fire from members of his own party, particularly those who advocate so-called Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay rights to take precedence over those of the country’s other races. Although some reports had him returning early from an Italian vacation to put down a party rebellion, those reports have been denied. But he clearly has been weakened from the affair.

“The prime minister must have realized that middle Malaysia will not tolerate a government that fanatically makes ‘clean’(Bersih, in Malay language) a dirty word, and losing the middle ground will erode his edge as a moderate leader in the increasingly rough intra-UMNO rivalry,” said Wong Chin Huat.

It is the mechanics of the process that are important. Although the prime minister said the committee would include lawmakers from both the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition, to “discuss all the questions and issued raised about electoral reform so that a mutual agreement could be reached,” Deputy Speaker Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, a member of the United Malays National Organization, told local media that it would take at least year before the committee could finish its work and the reforms, if any, could be implemented.

Najib has passed the word to UMNO stalwarts and his Barisan coalition partners that an election is probable in the late part of this year or early next. He has been doing tours to individual states to concentrate his forces and prepare the groundwork for the election. Few parliamentary committees have ever completed their work in the space of three or four months, especially if there are members there with instructions to slow things down.

Bersih leaders immediately said the necessary reforms could be put in place well before any projected election. They say as many as 3.5 million voters have been disenfranchised by the current electoral process, that voter rolls must be cleaned to eliminate ghost voters and that the electoral period must be lengthened. Currently, they complain, the Barisan Nasional has the ability to put its campaign machinery in place, then call a snap election before the opposition has the opposition the opportunity to mount its campaign.

They are also asking that coverage by the media be made more fair, a tall order since the major newspapers and television stations are all owned by the component parties of the Barisan. The Kuala Lumpur-based Center for Independent Journalism has called for the government to relinquish control of state-funded media -- Bernama and RTM radio and TV – “and make these publicly-funded media accountable to the public and serve public interest, rather than serve the government in power.”

Wong Chin Huat preferred to put an optimistic face on the announcement, saying that “It would be good for Malaysia, we will have a more logical electoral process. The next government will have greater degrees of legitimacy. If he is thinking of this as a method to delay reform until after the next election, the public will be more disappointed.

Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party, also questioned Najib’s action, pointing out that a parliamentary select committee has to be formed by the parliament, or Dewan Rakyat, which is not in session and which won’t convene before Oct.2 at the start of the 2012 budget negotiations. Lim asked whether Najib would convene an emergency meeting of the Parliament to approve the establishment of the committee.

The Malaysian Elections Commission has said it is already cleaning the electoral rolls to get rid of phantom voters.