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GE14: An uneven playing field

  • Although overcoming an uneven playing field -- a central, yet under-appreciated component of contemporary authoritarianism -- is extremely difficult, it is still possible!

By Khoo Ying Hooi

There are serious concerns in the lead-up to Malaysia's 14th general election on 9 May that shed doubt on whether the election will be free and fair. The Malaysian opposition party formed by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), has been temporarily disbanded by the Registrar of Societies (ROS) over its alleged failure to provide necessary documents, with a provisional dissolution order under Section 14(5) of the Societies Act 1966.

This disbandment means PPBM cannot use its name and logo or conduct any activities, but the Pakatan Harapan (PH) has long foreseeing this and it has been decided that the PH will be contesting under Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

The redelineation report that affects 98 out of the 165 parliamentary seats in Peninsular Malaysia with 129 parliamentarians voting in favor and 80 voting against it was passed hastily despite criticisms. Similarly, anti-fake news law was also passed and gazetted soon before the parliament is dissolved to pave the way for the 14th general election on 9 May.

While the campaign only starts on 28 April, there are already intensified concerns over the transparency of the electoral process and the degree of control and manipulation being exercised by the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN).

Some asked, what about the other two main components of the BN apart from United Malays National Organization (Umno)? Are they not voicing out their concerns, while the whole country's election is being put under not only national attention but also attracting major international attention? Moreover, most of the international news has not been positive in their reporting on our upcoming election.

In the past, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), which fought for independence from British rule along with Umno has proven to be loyal and trusted partners since 1957.

The MCA for example is seen to be championing the Chinese interests and rights, but this role has over time diminishing. The BN had also blamed the "Chinese tsunami" for the coalition's dismal performance in the last general election in 2013.

The overall atmosphere that surrounds the 9 May general election is set at a restricted political space and has until now failed to provide a level playing field for candidates from the opposition. Although the government has repeatedly stated its ambition to hold democratic and clean elections, but we can't help but to see various restrictions that hampering the process, such as the restriction on freedoms of expression, and on access to the fair media.

What has happened to our justice and democracy? Scholars Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in their 2010 article, "Why Democracy Needs a Level Playing Field" also included Malaysia in their study, citing that an uneven playing field is a central, yet under-appreciated, component of contemporary authoritarianism. It is a straightforward calculation that, when opposition are denied access to resources and mass media, their ability to compete in elections is further hindered and this seriously limits political competition.

According to Levitsky and Way, a playing field is deemed uneven under three conditions. First, state institutions are widely abused to achieve partisan goals. Second, the incumbent is systematically favored at the opposition's expense and third, the opposition's ability to mobilize and compete in elections is severely diminished.

Arguably, based on the three conditions, one way to actually ensure that each party and each candidate is treated fairly and justly is to provide them the same space and opportunities as well as resources. But the reality here tells us it is not the case in our country.

Uneven playing field is what we are facing, and that situation marginalized the voters in electoral politics as an uneven playing field like this basically allow the incumbent to remain in control by exacerbates the advantage. All these restrictions as mentioned above pose limitations for the voters the opportunity to make a free and informed choice.

Does this imply there are no values to our votes? Not necessarily as what Levitsky and Way highlighted in their article, where they argued that although overcoming an uneven playing field is extremely difficult, it is still possible.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)



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