Malaysia has been one of Asia’s great success stories. In building a modern, dynamic and prosperous economy, it has provided a model for developing countries across the globe. It is also a country with regional and growing international influence. What Malaysia says and does matters.
This is why so much attention is being paid to the general elections taking place on Sunday. Many predict these may be the closest-run elections in Malaysia’s history. With both the government and opposition promising to carry out far-reaching economic and political reforms, it seems likely that, whatever the result, May 5 will prove an historic turning point for the country.
But while the principal focus will be on the election results and who forms the next government, there will also be a great deal of attention, both within the country and internationally, on how the elections are carried out. This is understandable.
For what we have learnt from elections around the world - and is clearly understood in Malaysia itself - is that free, fair and credible elections are vital if they are to deliver the full benefits citizens want to see.
When elections are held with integrity, they strengthen democracy, accountability, trust and he cohesion of a society. But when lack integrity, they damage confidence in democracy, deny winners legitimacy and block the best channel for citizens to manage divisions within society peacefully.
Sadly, this has been the case in too many elections around the world. Indeed, while elections have been held in all but 11 countries around the world since 2000, the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, which I chaired, warned that fewer than 60 percent deserved to be called genuinely democratic.
In far too many cases, they are badly flawed or deliberately rigged so they offer neither choice, nor promote accountability or good government. The result can be increased tensions and divisions while corruption and poor governance go unchecked.
Conducting elections with integrity goes deeper than what happens on polling day itself, although this is important. It means building the rule of law and creating institutions and a culture where multiparty competition and the division of power is accepted and encouraged.
Opposition parties must be free to organise and campaign without fear of intimidation. There must, as far as possible, be a level playing field including access to a free and pluralistic media. Barriers to universal and equal participation must be removed while uncontrolled, undisclosed and opaque political finance is regulated.
On polling day, voters must be able to cast their vote freely and with confidence in the secrecy and integrity of the ballot. They have to believe that the results will accurately reflect the number of votes each candidate and party receive, and that any electoral disputes will be resolved through independent courts.
When these conditions are met, we also need to see the result accepted no matter how disappointed the defeated candidates and their supporters feel. There is a responsibility on the winners not to fall into a “winner takes all” approach to power, or try to demonise their opponents. A strong and healthy democracy needs a strong and healthy opposition.
Desire not to repeat past mistakes
Malaysia has a long tradition of parliamentary democracy. But there is an acceptance that not all the conditions for electoral integrity have been fully met in the past.
It has been encouraging to see the widespread desire not to repeat past mistakes. The country’s Electoral Commission has already responded by improving independent monitoring and putting in place new processes - including the use of indelible ink - to prevent abuse and build trust in the result.
The commission has a big responsibility to see the elections are carried out freely and fairly, and to ensure it is seen to act professionally, impartially and in the interest of the whole country. Political leaders of all parties must also behave responsibly in the aftermath of polling day.
But what is also needed is to maintain the momentum for continued democratic and political reform. Whatever the result of Sunday’s election, there is clearly a strong desire within the country to strengthen its democracy and enhance public discussion about salient issues and how to address them.
It is up to the citizens of Malaysia to decide how this can best be achieved. But my experience has taught me that there can be no trade-off between peace and security, economic development, and the rule of law and human rights. They are the three indispensable pillars of strong, healthy and democratic societies.
For there can be no long-term security without development, and no development without security. And no society can long remain prosperous or secure without respect for the rule of law and human rights.
Continued progress towards these goals in Sunday’s poll, and in the months and years which follow, will drive Malaysia’s progress and enhance its reputation and influence around the world.
KOFI ANNAN was secretary-general of the United Nations 1997-2006. He is the chair of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, www.global-commission.org
(Because of the inaccessibility of Malaysiakini site, I have posted the whole article instead of excerpt with a link.)