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Beware of pitfalls when doing ministerial visits during by-elections

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Bersih 2.0 wishes to respond to Electoral Commission chairperson Azhar Harun, who said today that, in general, government activities are not against election laws as during a b-election, the government still exists.

Although it is true that in a by-election, state assemblies and Parliament are not dissolved and the government of the day is still functioning, the election law is still clear on certain offences like bribery, treating, undue influence and excessive spending.

When a government minister visits a constituency where a by-election has been declared, he or she has to be mindful that these election laws are effective, even before nomination day because most of the offences listed in the Election Offences Act 1954 begins with “every person who, before, during or after an election….” As such, any activity that is perceived as “fishing for votes”, even before nomination day, can be considered an election offence.

It is important that ministers during their “working visits” do not attach any conditions to their handouts or to their promises of development. Statements like “If you vote for my candidate or party, I will give you RM2m” or “I will build you a new school if my candidate wins” would be considered as bribery using government resources.

Any announcement of goodies during a by-election should not be exclusive only to that constituency but general in nature. For example, to announce a special allocation just for schools in the by-election constituency may be deemed as bribery.

But if the allocation is for schools nationwide, statewide or a large category that spans beyond the by-election constituency, that would probably not be an election offence. Similarly, to remind voters of a fulfilled project in the by-election constituency is not an election offence.

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When carrying out visits in their capacity as ministers, the prospective or confirmed candidate should not accompany them as it could be construed as campaigning using his or her government position. But if they don their party uniforms and the candidate accompanies them, they would be campaigning in their capacity as a party leader.

Bersih 2.0 once again call on the Electoral Commission and all parties to come together to draw up guidelines to bring clarity to many such grey areas.

Such heated public debate also underscores the urgent need for a parliamentary select committee on elections and political parties to deal with precisely such matters in order to bring legal clarity as well as to introduce new legal amendments where needed. We call on such a parliamentary select committee to be established without delay.

Bersih 2.0 is encouraged that there is a greater awareness of the election laws and a desire among the parties to ensure that elections are conducted cleanly and fairly. Let us all work together to strengthen our democracy by reforming our electoral processes and laws.

Bersih 2.0 steering committee

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