By Hadi Azmi and N. Nantha
Observers from nine Asian countries are on the ground for Malaysia’s general election, according to the Election Commission, which earlier barred the national human rights agency from monitoring what the opposition has branded as a “dirty” vote.
The 25 foreign observers – national election commissioners from Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, the Maldives, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – were taken on Tuesday to see a vote-counting center in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital near Kuala Lumpur, officials said.
“Every one of these observers are the persons who are involved in the elections in their own country. They asked plenty of questions and are very keen to oversee our [election] tomorrow,” Othman Mahmood, the EC’s deputy chairman said, according to state-run news service Bernama.
“The purpose of … inviting these foreign observers is to prove the transparency of the election process and we are able to get feedback from them to improve the management of the elections in the future,” he added.
More than 1,200 people representing a host of local groups also will be stationed as observers of Malaysia’s 14th general election (GE14), the EC said. Among the groups sending observers to polling places are the Malaysian Youth Council (MBM), the Kota Bharu People’s Organization (OKB), the Vision Voters Organization of Malaysia and local universities, according to a list from the commission.
However, no western nations are represented among the foreign observers. Press officers at the American and British embassies in Kuala Lumpur declined requests from BenarNews to comment on why their countries were not sending observers to monitor the Malaysian polls.
Separately, EC member K. Bala Singam declined interview requests from BenarNews.
‘Entrusted by the King’
In late April, the nation’s human rights commission (Suhakam) announced that the EC had rejected its application to accredit its observers for the polls.
In a statement the following day, the EC said it did not need Suhakam’s services, explaining that it had approved “enough” observers for the polls.
“[T]he involvement of Suhakam as election observers is not needed because the EC has invited independent and foreign observers to observe the 14th general election,” the EC said on April 27.
“At the same time the law also provides the rights of all candidates and contesting parties to appoint their agents as the observers in the election process,” said the statement, which was attributed to EC Chairman Mohd Hashim Abdullah.
“As a free and fair body with integrity, entrusted by the King to manage the general election, EC will ensure [that] every GE14 process conducted by 250,000 public members will be carried out in a fair and transparent manner without pressure and interference from any party,” he said, referring to the number of volunteers and poll workers expected to be on hand Wednesday.
Suhakam officials, nonetheless, have vowed to send a team of 50 officials and volunteers to observe voting in hotly contested constituencies, including Kuala Lumpur and Selangor and Kelantan states.
Opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad told Agence France-Presse last month that the May 9 election would be the “dirtiest” ever held in Malaysia, citing changes to the electoral map and other measures.
“Of course the opposition invariably complains about the election but this time around it is so obvious that even members of the governing party … are very unhappy,” he was quoted as saying.
Doubts about accredited observers
Meanwhile, some analysts and watchdog groups questioned the role that the officially invited foreign observers could play in helping guarantee a clean vote come Election Day.
“With such a short trip, they look more like just visitors to endorse the EC. Also, neither the Thai [delegation] nor the Maldivian one has much credibility. Both countries are not democracies,” Wong Chin Huat, an analyst at the Penang Institute, a local think-tank, told BenarNews.
Mandeep Singh, a manager for Bersih 2.0, a grassroots group that advocates for free and fair elections in Malaysia, echoed that comment.
“Our position is that these people are not observers, but merely visitors. It is clear that they came here under [an] invitation from the Malaysian government. It’s a government-to-government program so they are doing it just as a courtesy to the caretaker government,” Singh told BenarNews.
“Proper monitoring takes six, three, or at least one month prior to the actual balloting day. It’s not enough just witnessing the ballots being cast. Actual monitoring needs to look into the entire election process,” he added.
He also questioned the impartiality of some of the local observers approved by the EC.
“[W]ho are these people and these organizations? What have they done in regards to elections? Majlis Belia Malaysia [the Malaysian Youth Council], for example, has been seen campaigning for BN,” he said, referring to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
“How is it possible for election monitors to be campaigning for a candidate at the same time?”