The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0) expresses concern with Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin’s announcement that all physical gatherings and social activities related to the upcoming Malacca state election will be banned from 25 October to 27 November to reduce the risk of new Covid infections.
While we acknowledge that the risk is real and precautions are necessary, such a total ban is a suppression of all candidates’ right to campaign and express themselves and the voters’ right to make an informed decision by hearing from the candidates; ultimately, it is a suppression of democracy itself.
Malacca has entered Phase 4 of the national recovery plan on 18 October where the standard operation procedure allows social activities and visitations, limited to 50% space capacity while adhering to physical distancing. The Health Minister’s ruling is inconsistent with the plan’s guideline as it targets only election-related activities.
While the ban is on all political parties and candidates, we are concerned that it would grossly disadvantage those parties who are not part of the ruling government as state media tends to focus almost exclusively on the activities and achievements of ruling parties’ candidates and to highlight the failures of the opposition. This would render the playing field unfair and reduces the legitimacy of any outcome from the election.
Bersih 2.0 calls on the health minister to reconsider the total ban on physical gatherings and instead implement stricter enforcement of the standard operating procedure outlined under the national recovery plan by increasing the number of enforcement officers during the Malacca polls. Any violators, regardless of party affiliations, should be fined or prosecuted under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988.
We further propose that the Election Commission come up with the following rules, requirements and alternatives so that the restrictions do not suppress the rights of parties and candidates to campaign.
- Provide at least seven days for candidates to file their nomination papers at the Malacca Election Commission office and have them checked so that any mistakes are corrected before the end of nomination. Surprise rejections are unnecessary and should be avoided
- The list of successful candidates can be displayed online on nomination day at 10am. This would remove the need for political parties’s supporters and candidates to gather at nomination centres throughout Malacca
- For political gatherings or ceramahs, regulate that chairs must be provided and that they must be at least one metre apart, and all attendees must be seated. This should apply also to small gatherings at coffee shops and day or night markets. Face masks must be worn at all times by all speakers and attendees
- For house-to-house visitations, the number of people allowed to be part of a group should be limited to five, and they must not enter the house or be at least be two metres away from households when speaking
- The Election Commission could call on government-owned TV and radio broadcast outlets to provide designated time slots for party political broadcasts to all contesting parties and independents. The time allotted should be equal, regardless of party
- Broadcast media outlets could play a greater role during this election by organising discussion panels involving the candidates where local issues are discussed and the candidates’ views can be heard
- Debates between chief ministerial candidates could be organised and telecast on state television channels at least twice – right after nomination day and another, two days before polling day
- The Election Commission could provide and sponsor at least one designated billboard display in a prominent location in each of the 28 state constituencies, where the details of the contesting candidates are displayed with their party symbols. This would help smaller parties and independent candidates get much-needed visibility.
- To reduce crowding during polling, the Election Commission could consider extending polling to three days and designate day and time slots for different categories of people according to their age groups. This could reduce the need for multiple salurans (streams) manned by multiple sets of election workers
- Stringent physical distancing, masking and sanitising standard operating proceduress must be adhered to and all election workers must be properly trained to keep themselves and voters safe from infections
- Voters who are unvaccinated should not be unduly inconvenienced from exercising their voting rights. A health safety booth could be set up to provide instant RTK-Antigen saliva or nasal swab tests to confirm that they are Covid negative before they are allowed to vote with the other voters. Those tested positive should be allowed to cast their vote separately from the rest within the health booth
- Gatherings at counting and tallying centres should also be restricted and all results broadcast live on national TV channels
Bersih 2.0 urges the Election Commission to take this opportunity to introduce new and innovative ways like what we have proposed above so that the important task of participating in an election and our democracy is not suppressed during a pandemic.
While the Ministry of Health must play their part to ensure that infections are kept low, it must not overstep its role and impose unnecessary restrictions on the conduct of elections. – Bersih 2.0