Friday, September 24, 2021

The cost and benefits of holding pandemic polls

The logistics of safely holding an election for more than 15 million voters will pose a challenge but economist Madeline Berma says the long-term benefits will outweigh the cost.

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Some 15 million Malaysians are eligible to vote in the next general election which Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has pledged will be held by July next year, presenting an unprecedented challenge to the authorities in ensuring that sufficient measures are taken to safeguard voters in the event of pandemic polls.

Election Commission (EC) secretary Ikmalrudin Ishak said the last gazetted electoral roll before the dissolution of Parliament would be used when the 15th general election (GE15) is called.

“The current total of registered voters is 15.36 million,” he told MalaysiaNow.

Traditionally, polling has been held at venues such as schools which are easily accessible to voters given their proximity to local communities.

But concerns over Covid-19, especially the more transmissible Delta strain, mean authorities will have more on their plate than locations for polling.

Crowd control and the enforcement of SOPs such as the use of face masks and observing physical distancing will also need to be taken into consideration.

Then there’s the cost of holding a pandemic election.

Ikmalrudin said conducting a general election during the pandemic would be pricey, especially if the long-awaited Sarawak state election is held at the same time. Nevertheless, preparations are underway.

The EC has already consulted with the relevant authorities on reviewing its safety plans and guidelines, he said, listing agencies and ministries including the National Security Council, health ministry, National Disaster Agency and police.

Muhyiddin had said in a special address on Friday that GE15 would be held by July 2022, subject to the pandemic situation.

He also offered in exchange for support a cross-party consensus involving seven items including the equal allocation of funds for MPs across board, the enactment of an anti-hopping law, a cap on the prime minister’s tenure in office and a balanced representation of MPs from the government and opposition in the Special Parliamentary Select Committee.

“A government that has full support in Parliament will be able to plan and implement structural reforms for economic recovery and strengthen Malaysia’s competitiveness.”

The offer was rejected by opposition bloc Pakatan Harapan as well as Umno and Pejuang.

While Muhyiddin had stressed the uncertainty involved in switching governments during the pandemic, economist Madeline Berma said not holding an election would be a gamble of a different kind.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, she acknowledged concerns about holding an election during the Covid-19 crisis but said the long-term socioeconomic benefits and political stability would outweigh the cost of conducting pandemic polls.

“The present government does not have the majority in Parliament to design and implement structural reforms such as taxation reforms, green finance and forcing adaptation to post-pandemic mega-trends,” she said.

“Structural reforms are varied and take time to bear fruit. A government with a razor-thin majority in Parliament does not have the time to do so.”

She spoke of a need to increase efficiency, flexibility and resilience, saying such reforms go beyond the provisions of the National Economy Recovery Plan or Penjana.

“Those are mostly short- and medium-term and suitable for addressing immediate problems such as livelihoods and putting food on the table,” she said.

“The fiscal stimulus packages are highly commendable but we need long-term solutions to solve structural problems that existed pre-Covid.”

She said reforms are also needed for taxation, the labour market, the product market and the public sector.

“Our economy is currently based on a labour-intensive, export-oriented model that leads to a reliance on low-cost foreign labour, low labour productivity, graduate unemployment and low income, and inhibits competitiveness,” she said.

“A government that has full support in Parliament will be able to plan and implement structural reforms for economic recovery and strengthen Malaysia’s competitiveness.

“RM1.2 billion (for an election) is the price Malaysia has to pay for a government that will have a strong mandate in Parliament, to bring our country to new economic heights in the post-pandemic era.”

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