Thursday, January 21, 2021

Malaysia inches towards pandemic-era snap polls but experts warn of the downside

The EC says it is duty-bound to hold elections if a seat becomes vacant or a legislative assembly is dissolved.

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Malaysia is likely to proceed with a general election under the shadow of Covid-19, even as some experts warn of a host of issues that might disrupt pandemic-era polls.

More than 60 countries have postponed their elections due to the pandemic, which has so far infected some 35 million people, claimed the lives of more than a million and ravaged economies across the world.

But countries such as France, Croatia, Poland and South Korea, as well as neighbouring Singapore, have gone ahead with theirs despite fears of the virus spreading.

South Korea, among the countries praised for efficiently containing the virus, saw no impact on the rate of infections after its election in April. In fact, authorities reported a decrease in cases.

Statistics released by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control however showed post-election spikes in Belarus, Poland and Serbia.

The same happened with Singapore, although its election campaign in July was marked by “online rallies” and socially distanced house visits, a favourite among politicians in the city-state.

EC ready for challenges

Several elections have been held in Malaysia since the pandemic began.

The Chini and Slim by-elections were due to the death of their incumbents.

The Sabah election, called after ruling assemblymen switched loyalties, was the largest election exercise conducted by the Election Commission (EC) after the 2018 polls.

The state is expected to hold another election soon, in Batu Sapi, following the death of its MP Liew Vui Keong last week.

EC deputy chairman Azmi Sharom told MalaysiaNow that the commission had no say on whether elections should be held back due to the virus scare.

“If a seat becomes vacant, or a legislative assembly is dissolved, we are duty-bound to conduct elections,” said Azmi, who took a lead role in the EC following the appointment of its boss Azhar Harun as Dewan Rakyat speaker in June, until former EC secretary Abdul Ghani Salleh was named as Azhar’s successor on Aug 21.

Speculation of snap polls began at the worst possible time, when the government collapsed in February just as Covid-19 cases were rising.

But the movement control order, an unprecedented but popular move to lock down businesses and daily activities, temporarily shut out voices calling for a snap election.

For electoral reforms group Bersih 2.0, there should be no exemptions when it comes to holding elections.

“Unless the National Security Council declares emergency in an area,” said its chairman Thomas Fann.

“I am confident that the health ministry and the EC can conduct an election safely if the SOPs are tightened,” he told MalaysiaNow.

Those SOPs include the wearing of face masks, temperature checks and physical distancing measures.

In South Korea, such SOPs during its nationwide polls cost the country at least US$16 million more.

Azmi said the biggest challenge would be on polling day, due to the concentration of people at voting centres.

Yet he said there had been no reports of Covid-19 spikes due to people going to vote.

On the other hand, campaigning remains a challenge.

“Campaigning is harder to control because it is carried out over at least two weeks and happens in many places in various formats,” he said.

“If there are anymore elections during the pandemic, there will be rules for campaigning. What these rules are will be determined at the time and will be subject to modifications depending on the circumstances,” Azmi said.

‘Easier to disrupt polls’

With the country’s recent Covid-19 numbers breaching even the MCO-era mark, it is difficult to predict whether those pressing for snap polls will settle for election politics taking a back seat to avert a health crisis.

A recent study by the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations said a major impact on pandemic-era elections has been low voter turnout.

To make things worse, there is also fake news misinforming the public on the virus, including claiming that a polling centre is closed.

“There are several ways this could disrupt elections. Results will likely be announced later than usual, which could cause the public to question the legitimacy of the vote,” the council said.

In the previous general election in Malaysia, there were allegations of phantom voters on social media which raised credibility issues.

It remains to be seen if pandemic-era snap polls will make it easier to disrupt polling, and in the process, defeat the whole purpose of strengthening democracy.

Fazreen Kamal contributed to this report.

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