By CHANDRA MUZAFFAR
The Bersih Rally of April 28 has brought to the fore two fundamental human rights: the freedom of assembly and the right to participate in free and fair elections.
It is a shame that the exercise of the first of these rights on that day was marred by acts of violence. Protesters, journalists and police personnel were among those who were hurt and injured. The government has promised an honest, unbiased investigation that will reveal how the violence started, who the perpetrators were and who instigated them. It is also important to find out if foreigners were involved in the rally which degenerated into a riot.
One hopes that apart from police evidence, the investigators will also give serious attention to allegations by the protesters and reports from SUHAKAM and Bar Council monitors. In the interest of the nation the results of the investigation should be made public as soon as possible. More important, firm action should be taken against the culprits, regardless of their role or position in society.
Perhaps the violence that occurred at the Bersih Rally could have been avoided if the organisers had acceded to the request from DBKL and the police to hold the assembly in one of the four stadiums offered to them, including Stadium Merdeka, instead of insisting upon Dataran Merdeka. According to the Dataran's 1992 by-laws, the Square can only be used for national events, which is why applications from other NGOs to hold activities related to their specific agenda, had been rejected in the past. Why were the organisers so obstinate about the venue when they could have conveyed the same message about free and fair elections from some other place?
This brings us to that critical question: are elections in Malaysia free and fair? If we focussed upon actual voting, there has been no evidence of ballot-box stuffing, ballot-box switching, mass disappearance of voters' names from electoral rolls, gross discrepancies between ballots cast and registered voters and other such instances of blatant electoral fraud since the first general election in 1959. Of course, there are electoral irregularities and errors some of which have been exposed over the years. Such shortcomings exist in all electoral processes. Indeed, there is no electoral process in the world that is totally free of blemish.
It is partly because there is a degree of integrity in the electoral process that the opposition parties collectively have in various general elections garnered between 35% and 50% of the popular vote. In the 2008 General Election for instance, the opposition coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat, captured five states, won 10 out of 11 seats in the national capital, and for the first time in history denied the ruling Barisan Nasional(BN) its two-third majority in the Federal Parliament. It has also won 8 out of the 16 by-elections held since 2008. If there is a viable political opposition in the country today it is due largely to a functioning electoral process.
There is yet another yardstick that one can employ to determine whether the electoral process in a particular society is fair or not. If the result of an election reflects voter sentiment accurately, there would be no basis for alleging fraud. The outcome of every general election in Malaysia has mirrored the prevalent mood within the electorate. In 1959, unhappiness within a segment of the Malay electorate caused by new citizenship laws, on the one hand, and the crisis within the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), on the other, led to a decline in support from both communities for the ruling Alliance.
However, in 1964, the threat of Konfrantasi from Indonesia brought the various communities together and boosted the Alliance's electoral performance. Fast forward to 2004, the hope generated by a new Prime Minister resulted in a huge victory for the BN but in 2008, disillusionment set in because of the leadership's perceived inability to deliver its promises and the coalition suffered a severe setback.
All this should not delude us into believing that there is no need for any reform to the way we conduct elections. Partly because of the Bersih 2 episode in July 2011 and partly because of representations from individuals and groups inside and outside government, the Cabinet decided to establish a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to explore ways and means of enhancing the electoral process. The PSC conducted six public hearings in six cities and listened to views and submissions from 106 groups and individuals.
It should be emphasised that the three opposition MPs in the nine- member committee played an active role in the PSC's work. They were even part of the PSC's working visits to the United Kingdom, Germany and Denmark. They endorsed the 10 preliminary recommendations presented by the PSC to Parliament on December 1st 2011 which included the proposals to use indelible ink for voting and the cleaning up of the electoral rolls. They also endorsed 18 out of the 22 recommendations presented to Parliament on April 3rd 2012 -- recommendations which included provision for a caretaker government; equitable media access; strengthening the EC; balanced constituency delineation; and political party funding.
The 32 recommendations from the PSC adopted by Parliament constitute the most sweeping reforms to our electoral process ever undertaken in our 54 year history. Given their nature, some of the reforms will take time to implement. Others can be rolled out immediately. To buttress these changes, the EC has attempted to clarify several issues pertaining to the electoral process in a small booklet.
What is even more significant electoral reform is taking place in the context of other far-reaching changes to political and civil liberties. A Peaceful Assembly Act has been enacted which facilitates the exercise of a fundamental right. The Publications law has been amended to ensure judicial review over executive authority. There is more scope now for student participation in politics. Outdated Emergency Ordinances have been rescinded. And most of all, the ISA has been abolished. It is an irrefutable fact that through these legislative reforms the space and scope for the expression and articulation of human rights has been expanded and enhanced as never before.
Much more has to be done. Even some of the laws that have been amended will have to be subjected to further review and perhaps abrogated altogether. Citizens groups that are genuinely committed to democratic reform will have to continue to engage the government and the opposition in dialogue and action--- including through the exercise of their right to peaceful assembly.
This is why it is utterly disingenuous and dishonest of opposition leaders and some Bersih 3 activists to behave as if nothing has changed for the better since Bersih 2 Their vile and vicious condemnation of the changes that have been wrought between Bersih 2 and Bersih 3 -- changes that they were partly responsible for --- expose them as frauds and hypocrites without any sincere commitment to freedom and democracy. Through their politics of deceit and duplicity, they continue to manipulate mass sentiments for their own diabolical agenda.
It is this agenda that is the greatest danger to the nation today.
(Dr CHANDRA MUZAFFAR is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia.)