The early termination of the Sarawak emergency, as announced by Istana Negara on 3 November, paved the way for the dissolution of the state legislative assembly on 5 November.
We expect the Election Commission to announce a date for the state election, which should be within 60 days – and this means anytime in November or by December 2021.
As we are on the cusp of Undi 18 [the lowering of the minimum voting age from 21 to 18] and the implementation of automatic voter registration, this dissolution is for us a deliberate and calculated attempt by the chief minister and the Gabungan Parti Sarawak state government to deny the youth vote as well as the rest of the new electorate who will vote for the very first time if the state election was to be held after the original date of expiry of the emergency.
The GPS does not seem to be concerned about making the state election as inclusive as possible. We assume they would rather stick with known voting patterns or what they are familiar with.
Another concern we have is a low voter turnout. If the voter turnout is low, this directly affects the legitimacy of the institution we elect. Voter turnout has always been one of the lowest in Sarawak compared with other states. With the Covid situation still at worrying levels and the detection of Delta sub-variants, there is a huge possibility that voters will not go back to vote or come out to vote.
The Election Commission must thus formulate and implement or extend absentee voting for various categories of voters.
One category is Sarawakians who are staying in Peninsular Malaysia or Sabah and who would need to take time off and spend precious money on airfares to come back to the state to cast their votes. Another is of course those working or living in Singapore and in neighbouring Asean countries. We call on the Election Commission to allow them to become postal voters or advance voters who can vote at special polling centres set up in major cities or at least one city in each state of the peninsula.
The other category is the elderly in care homes or those in quarantine centres who also should not lose their right to vote. They can have it if the Election Commission implements some kind of mobile ballot box or voting method.
There should also not be a blanket ban on meetings or gatherings related to elections, like what the Ministry of Health has stated, without making alternative provisions for campaigning.
Sarawak is a huge state in terms of land mass, with just under 50% of our population living rurally or in rural districts where road connectivity leaves much to be desired. Telecommunications and internet connectivity are also sporadic and intermittent.
Unlike Malacca, which has only 28 state seats and a voting population of about half a million, Sarawak’s 1.2 million voters are spread over 82 state constituencies. If physical campaigns are banned and the Election Commission does not make or provide for alternative forms of campaigning, eg over state television and radio, this would only discriminate against opposition parties and their candidates, who need to reach voters with their manifestos.
To date, even with nomination day on the 8 November, the Election Commission has not come up with election standard operating procedures for the Malacca state elections. This does not augur well for the confidence of voters and all other contesting parties and other stakeholders like election workers.
The Election Commission needs to seriously look at the Sarawak election and the different set of challenges it poses and come up with standard operating procedures well ahead, as it will take time to communicate these procedures to the stakeholders. – ROSE