After Sedition Act flip-flop, how now for Najib’s election reform?

Following Putrajaya’s about-turn on the Sedition Act repeal, questions now hang over another of Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s promised reforms – to place the Election Commission under parliamentary oversight.

Published: 2 December 2014

Following Putrajaya’s about-turn on the Sedition Act repeal, questions now hang over another of Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s promised reforms – to place the Election Commission under parliamentary oversight.

Announced less than a month after the May 5 general election last year, the plan to have a bipartisan committee oversee the EC to address concerns over its alleged bias now appears to have hit a snag.

EC chairman Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof said the plan would not be happening any time soon.

“It is still being carefully studied,” he told The Malaysian Insider when asked about the progress made so far since Najib’s announcement last year to remove the EC from the purview of the Prime Minister’s Department.

Aziz said it would not be easy to implement the reform as it required constitutional changes.

Najib made the announcement on June 1, last year in a speech for the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong’s birthday celebration in Istana Negara.

In the 13th general election (GE13) a month earlier, the ruling Barisan Nasional had gained under 47% of the popular vote although it won 133 seats in the 222-member Dewan Rakyat.

The opposition, Pakatan Rakyat, received 51% of the popular vote and 89 seats.

“The government has decided to transfer the control and functions of the EC to a special committee consisting of MPs from all political parties, either from the government or the opposition,” Najib said then.

“With this move, it is hoped that the impartiality of the Election Commission is no longer questioned and that the confidence of the people towards the commission can be strengthened,” Bernama had reported him saying.

Aziz also told The Malaysian Insider that apart from amending the Federal Constitution, such a move would also need the support of two-thirds of the MPs in the Dewan Rakyat.

“Everything is still at an early stage of planning,” he said, adding that the EC was also trying to avoid a controversy similar to when it decided to implement the use of indelible ink.

“Although the intention may be good, we still need to study this plan carefully, all the pros and the cons.

“In the past, even with the slightest mistake, EC was attacked mercilessly. This time, we have to tread carefully,” he said.

Najib’s announcement had come amid accusations that the EC had favoured the BN and had even helped the 13-party coalition keep its unbroken grip on power. The polls last year saw indelible ink used for the first time in Malaysian polls but claims of gerrymandering and malapportionment by the EC remained.

Responding positively to the proposal, PR had suggested that it was willing to lead the committee “to ensure the exercise has genuine intention of restoring the public’s confidence in the EC”.

EC should report to Parliament

Merdeka Center executive director Ibrahim Suffian said the criticism against the EC was the reason the plan to put it under parliamentary oversight needed to be executed.

“There are those who say EC is not free because it is under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Department. We are now more aware about democracy, that was why NGOs were pushing for more transparency and fairness from the election regulator,” Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim, who was also involved in election monitoring work for the polls last year, said the selection and appointment of EC members should also be done more fairly without any direct involvement of the prime minister.

“When it is under the Parliament, appointments of members of the commission, the selection and appointment process will be decided by a bipartisan panel.

“So the chances of the EC being seen as a neutral party increase.”

Election reform group Bersih 2.0 has clear ideas as to how Najib’s proposal should be implemented.

Its chairperson, Maria Chin Abdullah, said the EC should become an executive body similar to the National Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) which has its own budget and administration.

“We want EC to be placed under the Parliament Act, just like Suhakam. For Suhakam, it is specifically under the Human Rights Commission Act.

“This way, EC will report directly to the Parliament and become an executive body,” said Maria.

She added that by doing so, the election regulator would have the power to investigate and present its findings in Parliament.

“It is important for EC to have the power to act against misconduct, or at least the power to investigate. Once they can conduct an investigation, they will have to present their report and it can then be debated.”

Aziz, however, continued to defend the EC’s independence, insisting that it was not controlled by any party, adding that placing the commission under parliamentary purview would not resolve charges of bias against the EC.

“They (the opposition) always think that the EC is not independent, but even if it is under the Parliament, there will be someone who is in control, for example, the Speaker.

“They may make the same charges again if the decision that is made by the Speaker is not favourable to them,” he said.

The EC, formed in 1957 under the Federal Constitution, falls under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Department.

Najib has said that the elections regulator was neither a government department nor agency but a statutory body whose members received the same protection as Federal Court judges.

After the contentious GE13, PR had organised several rallies throughout the country, accusing BN of “stealing” the elections as the coalition had lost the popular vote for the first time since 1969, but still retained federal power. – December 2, 2014.