What would a Malaysian election be without its share of ‘dirty tricks’? This will not be the year we find out. Even taking institutionalized malapportionment of parliamentary seats, disproportionality of votes, and hurdles to voter registration as givens, the 13th general election has been fraught not just with the usual misdemeanors, but also with allegations that suggest a deeper than ‘normal’ malaise and real cause for concern with the system.
Today–election day–itself has been punctuated most notably by calls of Bangladeshis, Indonesians, Filipinos, and other migrant workers, allegedly gifted with identity cards, then transported by the jetload to wherever their votes (for the incumbent Barisan Nasional, BN, of course) are most needed. Incensed citizens have moved from vigilance to vigilantism in seeking out such undi hantu and blocking them from the polls. Allegations have flown as always (only faster and wider, thanks to social media) of missing registrations or shifted polling venues; of sullied ballots; of easily-removed ‘indelible ink’ (on fingers, and smudged on ballots, spoiling them); of party workers who overstep the 50 meter cordon sanitaire around polling stations; of party logos worn or carried into the polling station, however verboten; of queues protracted by superfluous bureaucracy. Tales and videos of thugs from both coalitions, beating up their opponents, have stood in contrast to the festive atmosphere of final-hour cheering, clapping, and singing for votes. In truth, none of this is so far out of the ordinary, apart from, perhaps, the sheer number of irregular voters said to have been flown and bused from afar.
The run-up to the polls has been no less fraught with malfeasance, both clearly-apparent and less hard to prove. Most obvious among these sins has been the staggering amount of money spent on this election. Individual candidates (mostly, but not only, on the BN side) have clearly far exceeded the Election Commission’s limits for parliamentary and state candidates, but it is their parties’ spending, especially the BN’s (including funnelled through its 1Malaysia ‘NGO’ operations), that is most absurd. The whole of Malaysia could be wrapped several times over the in the flags, buntings, and billboards the BN has erected everywhere it can, not even including the ever-present ‘1’ (representing state-funded 1Malaysia programs, represented as though funded by the BN itself). The Pakatan Rakyat coalition (PR) gives the BN a run for its money where it can, but it cannot hope to match the BN’s PR blitz. Gifts have flowed freely: hundreds of laptops that just happen to be given schoolchildren mid-campaign; sacks of rice galore; wheelchairs and diapers; massive quantities of food and drinks; free health checks; promises of schools, roads, community halls, investments. And then there’s the cash–for voting, for displaying flags, for coming to events, for being in the right place at the right time–and the more clever vouchers, redeemable only upon the candidate’s election. (And all that is not even to mention all the pre-election goodies, from cash payments under the BR1M public assistance scheme to civil servant bonuses to special schemes targeting segments like youths.) Neither side is innocent of these payments and handouts, although by all accounts, the BN leads in this game by a massive margin, benefiting as well from use of government vehicles and other ‘machinery’.
And then there are the media. Yes, the PR does have Facebook, Twitter, and a range of increasingly-sophisticated and well-known news sites … but the BN has the mainstream media. All of it. Papers such as the Star started to include scattered pro-PR pieces as the campaign proceeded, but all told, the mainstream media in all languages balance precariously between laughable and nauseating. Any government that requires such unabashedly sycophantic hackery clearly deems itself to be in trouble.
And the list goes on, from frenzied warnings–in speeches, on billboards, in incendiary, professionally-produced newspaper advertisements about the impending chaos (Islamic theocracy! Mass Christianization! Economic ruin! Riots!) should the PR win–to a sordid round of sex videos and convoluted conspiracy theories. All told, these elections may be technically ‘free’, but cannot be considered ‘fair’.
The worst thing about all this is not just how much of a head start one coalition has over the other, but what this means for the system as a whole. The Bersih movement–launched in 2007 and revived in 2011 as thousands of Malaysians clamoured for clean, free elections–suggests how much voters care about these issues. That so little progress has been made toward Bersih’s hardly earth-shattering demands, coupled with the more specific grievances expressed this time around, has plainly, and perhaps irrevocably, diminished too many Malaysians’ faith in the integrity of the Elections Commission. It may well be that the BN could win this fight, fair and square. But we will never know. The result? Should the BN pull off a win, a large proportion of Malaysians will not believe that win was anything but stolen; such skepticism bodes ill for faith in electoral politics broadly, especially with one-quarter of the electorate first-time voters. And should the PR win, the coalition will have its work cut out for it, in cleaning the electoral rolls, simplifying registration and balloting, unfettering media and public life, and curbing ever-present ‘money politics’–including within its own ranks.