Malaysia’s Elections, Electoral Reforms, and Vote 2019, By Uddin Ifeanyi
One danger of the Buhari government’s failure to institute electoral reforms is that the 2019 vote could fail to give expression to the will of the people. An immediate consequence of any such failure is that the loss of legitimacy that will afflict any government beneficiary of a flawed elections will heighten the risks of a further exacerbation of security conditions.
The general elections in Malaysia on May 9 had strong resonances with our local politics. The defeat by the Pakatan Harapan of the Barisan Nasional was the first change of government in Malaysia’s history. It returned to office, a former head of state, whose campaign platform included the fight against corruption as one of its main planks. And in 92-year old Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, the elections returned into office the oldest man to rule Malaysia.
The parallels do not end there. As with most elections in the developing world, the incumbent administration did all it could to retain its office. Blandishments were offered to potential voter segments. Threats to potential opponents ― including the 11th hour enactment of a law to punish the dissemination of “fake news”. The redistricting of constituencies to support the incumbent party’s candidates was the icing on the cake – insurance against a large voter turnout that was expected to favour the opposition.
These latter manoeuvrings explain the surprise with which most commentators welcomed the result. Ordinarily, however, the defeat of Najib Razak ought to have been a natural outcome of Malaysia’s recent politics. The loosening of his party’s choke-hold on the country’s politics was already in train. In the last general elections, five years ago, it lost the popular vote, retaining its parliamentary majority only courtesy of earlier fiddling with constituency structures. Before that, in the 2008 elections, it had, indeed, lost its parliamentary majority.
As if these were not enough electoral ballast, Mr. Najib appeared to preside over a very corrupt government. Under his watch, US$4.5 billion belonging to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state development fund, could not be accounted for. In 2015, a report by the Wall Street Journal accused Mr. Najib (and his kith and kin) of using the fund as a personal piggy-bank. In addition, the U.S.’ Department of Justice charged the then prime minister with personally benefitting from the loot to the tune of about US$700 million.
We could, for instance, have improved the biometric identification of voters; while moving the counting and tallying processes onto electronic platforms. We could, to put it differently, have avoided the pathetic examples of failed party primaries that have been a recent feature of the current electoral cycle.
In other words, there was no reason why Mr. Najib should have won the May vote. Except his border-line licit attempts to sway the vote succeeded. In the end, even these failed. Because the Malaysian electoral system somehow ensured that every vote counted, and every vote was counted.
This is where the similarities between the timelines for Malaysia’s vote and our experience ends. In the 2015 general elections here, the poster moment was when the incumbent president appeared to struggle to cast his vote, as the card readers that were a part of the voting process that year seemed to fail. Largely unremarked in the general euphoria that swept the country after the blundering Goodluck Jonathan administration was given the boot was how important a free and fair electoral process remains for the good governance of this space.
Professor Attahiru Jega’s stoicism in the face of provocation by party hacks made for good reporting copy. But in an election, it is the institutions and the structures that support voting and the tallying of votes that matter the most. Having been both a beneficiary of a seemingly free vote, and a near victim of the shenanigans with which elections in places like ours are messed up, one would thus have expected that the ruling All Progressives Congress would have had reforms of the electoral system at the top of its agenda for governing over the four years to 2019.
We could, for instance, have improved the biometric identification of voters; while moving the counting and tallying processes onto electronic platforms. We could, to put it differently, have avoided the pathetic examples of failed party primaries that have been a recent feature of the current electoral cycle. One danger of the Buhari government’s failure to institute electoral reforms is that the 2019 vote could fail to give expression to the will of the people. An immediate consequence of any such failure is that the loss of legitimacy that will afflict any government beneficiary of a flawed elections will heighten the risks of a further exacerbation of security conditions. Although, it would seem, on the basis of our recent experience that incompetence, even by a properly elected government, is enough on its own to cause this.
However, the far bigger danger is that denied voice in elections, an important segment of the people will continue to vote with their feet.