Fraudsters will have to tread carefully during the 13th general election as thousands of extra pairs of trained eyes will be helping the Election Commission (EC) and the police spot electoral fraud and political violence when polling day arrives.
Apart from the polling and counting agents appointed by each electoral candidate inside every polling station, a new breed of observers will be trolling the EC camps outside and in the nearby areas while voters decide who should rule Putrajaya next.
These are Bersih 2.0’s “citizen observers” — ordinary members of the public out to cast their own ballots on that crucial day, but armed with special training from local election experts on how to spot possible fraud and what to do with that information.
In an interview withThe Malaysian Insiderrecently, Bersih 2.0 co-chairman Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan(picture) said the “citizen observers” initiative, a campaign called “Jom Pantau” that will be re-launched along with “Jom 100” some time this month, was part of the group’s last-ditched attempt to make sure that the 13th general election is conducted fairly.
Ambiga, who has now gained international recognition for her work with the polls reform group, said the reason was simple — despite the raft of reforms and repeated assurances from the EC and the government, Bersih 2.0 still believes the coming polls will be the dirtiest in Malaysian history.
She said that this was because those in power now have too much at stake when polls are called, and with the heightened sense of public responsibility felt by voters today, those who intend to cheat would have to pull out all the stops to ensure their will is done.
“We have political violence going on even now. But the cops are not arresting anybody. It looks as if some people can behave with impunity.
“On polling day, political violence is when you frighten people away from stations, when there are threats and some people get emotional on that day… don’t forget, much of this comes from members of political parties because they have invested so much in the polls.
“But what people are alarmed about is how everyone gets away with it… Now the cops are partisan, they are getting orders telling them not to take action,” she said.
“I think only cowards do it. Those who are losers… who think they are gonna lose, who are losers anyway, also those who are scared of losing, are the ones who indulge in this. Otherwise, there should be no fear at all.”
Ambiga recounted Bersih’s many struggles over the past few years, from its first mass rally before the 2008 general election, to the July 9 gathering on 2011 and last year’s April 28 sit-in protest, and said that despite all its hard work, the government’s polls reforms have been pitiful, half-baked and insincere at best.
“There is nothing genuine about their intention to reform. Nothing,” she lamented.
But she said that Bersih 2.0, the polls watchdog group that became the catalyst to the burgeoning of Malaysia’s civil society movement, had decided not to accept defeat lying down.
The group may not have convinced the authorities that a total reform to current polls processes are needed, such as wiping out the thousands of irregularities spotted in current voter registries or putting an end to political violence, but Ambiga said that Bersih 2.0 has chalked up an even greater achievement.
“We have raised awareness,” she declared.
“So this is why this January, we are going to step up our two campaigns to get more and more Malaysians out on the streets during polling day — to vote, and to help us keep a lookout for fraud.”
Ambiga said Bersih 2.0, with the help of Pusat Komunikasi Masyarakat (Komas) and Malaysians for Free and Fair Elections (Mafrel), will be working the ground feverishly to attract more “citizen observers” into its fold by using social media tools and working the phone lines.
Another NGO, Tindak Malaysia, has already been training polling and counting agents or “PACABAs” — individuals appointed by every candidate to observe the polls proceedings inside the polling station itself.
Speaking to The Malaysian Insider recently, Komas programme officer Arul Prakash offered a brief preview of the group’s training session planned for the “Jom Pantau” programme.
He explained that among the most common offences that take place before and during an election are money politics and the abuse of government machinery, both state and federal, during the campaign period.
“There are big, lavish dinners, handing out of goodies by using a party’s name or government department.
“These are common things that we want people to observe,” he said.
“Also, we want to have people keeping watch on the ground. So that those who plan on committing fraud, they will think twice… you are being watched… you better be careful,” he said.
Arul said the key objective of “Jom Pantau” is to make sure that fraudsters are outnumbered by Bersih 2.0’s citizen observers and are frightened off from committing any offence during polling day.
He said Komas currently has some 300 observers already registered under the “Jom Pantau” campaign but Bersih 2.0 hopes to attract at least thousands more to ensure that every constituency would have a sizeable group keeping close watch over the polling process.
To register for training as a citizen observer, individuals are urged to visit Jom Pantau’s site at pru13.info.
“We will release our training details and other information when we re-launch the campaign in January. Right now, we are still ironing out our strategies,” he said.
Meanwhile, Tindak Malaysia has been training PACABAs for many months now. While its initiative is not a part of Bersih 2.0’s “Jom Pantau”, Ambiga said its work is central to the fight to keep the general election free from manipulation.
Speaking to The Malaysian Insider recently, Tindak Malaysia representative PY Wong said the PACABAs are considered “the last line of defence” in the battle for free and fair elections.
“You can have all the citizen observers in the world but without sufficient trained polling and counting agents, it would be pointless.
“It is like shutting the stable gates after the horse has bolted. This is why we feel that Tindak Malaysia’s work can contribute greatly to civil society,” he said.
Wong explained that there are many possible moments to commit fraud on polling day — throughout the entire “paper flow” process, from the inventory checks, to the election materials such as the ballot papers and the electoral rolls themselves, and finally, the counting of votes before a result is confirmed, accepted and announced.
For example, he said the validity of a ballot paper is two-pronged — its serial number and stamp must be endorsed and double-checked to ensure that there are no duplicate votes.
He added that during the polling process between 8am and 5pm, polling agents must make sure that only genuine voters are allowed to cast their ballots.
“And make sure they do not vote twice. But don’t forget… we have so many faces to remember so we must let the process guide us and keep vigilant to make sure there isn’t fraud,” he said.
Wong noted that the long-awaited indelible ink will be finally used to prevent double-voting in the coming polls but he warned that fraud was still possible despite the use of this preventive measure.
“Even though the indelible ink will be used this time… it is designed to fail,” he complained.
Explaining, Wong pointed out that there are insufficient rules governing the use of the indelible ink to ensure that the system is fool-proof.
He said an individual could walk into a polling station using clear glue on his or her fingers and therefore, once marked with the indelible ink, this individual could wash the glue off along with the ink and walk into the station to cast another vote.
In another example, Wong said the ink should only be marked on a voter’s finger after he or she votes, but in the present procedure under the EC’s system, this is done the other way around — a voter is marked before the ballot is cast.
He said this would be extremely time consuming and could eventually disrupt the polls process, denying rightful voters their opportunity to cast their ballots before polling ends at 5pm.
“We have the solution… take the finger-marking out of the polling process. So you can go back to the old way… only that once the vote is cast, there will be two ink bottles prepared for marking, instead of one… this would help comply with timing requirements,” he said.
Wong, however, much like many other Bersih 2.0 activists, complained that his ideas were shot down quickly by the local election regulators in the EC.
“That is why I say that all we can hope from citizen monitors is that they can be a deterrence factor… at the end of the day, it is for us all to have our hearts in the right place. Do we want our votes to count?” he said.
But Ambiga still believes that even if electoral fraud continues to persist in the coming polls, the participation of more people in the polls process as citizen observers should count for something.
The lawyer-cum-activist insisted that this would be Bersih’s greatest success thus far — that Malaysians are now more aware of the importance of a single vote could very well be the very reform that the group has been fighting for.
“Now that is powerful. If people can see that there is hope… if Bersih has given them hope, then that is what makes us formidable,” she said.