Spectre of bias hovers over Malaysian vote

Nearly all of Malaysia agrees coming elections will be the country's closest ever, but opinions diverge on another key question: will the hotly anticipated contest be free and fair?

"Yes", says the nation's long-ruling government, which touts recent reforms including the use of indelible ink to avoid multiple voting and expanded overseas postal balloting for the polls due by June.

"No", say activists and opposition parties whose rallies for electoral reform have triggered clashes with police and who warn "massive" bias and fraud could taint the vote in Southeast Asia's third-largest economy.

"The only thing we can do is minimise the fraud. But it will not be eradicated," said Ambiga Sreenevasan, co-chair of Bersih, a coalition that spearheaded two protests by tens of thousands of people in 2011 and 2012.

Since a strong opposition showing in 2008, Malaysia has been abuzz with speculation that the ruling Barisan Nasional bloc, in power since 1957 independence and one of the world's longest-serving regimes, could be dethroned.

But the opposition faces an uphill slog. Observers say Barisan has tilted the playing field decisively over the decades, one factor favouring an expected narrow government victory.

"Malaysians vote freely, but they do not have a fair playing field for the election," said Bridget Welsh, a political analyst at Singapore Management University who said a completely level field would likely see an opposition win.

Dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) -- Malaysia's most powerful party -- Barisan has produced impressive economic growth over the decades, and calls the three-party opposition alliance inexperienced.

The opposition, however, portrays UMNO as an oppressive and corrupt force, and promises deep reform.

-- Long history of vote fraud --

Malaysia has a history of past election fraud allegations -- including a case of a voter who would have been 128 still on the electoral role, vote-buying, and army officials filling out ballots for soldiers.

But Bersih warns the coming elections will be Malaysia's "dirtiest ever", saying the electoral roll is full of irregularities including large numbers of registered yet unaccounted-for voters.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim recently told AFP that Selangor, a key state the opposition won in 2008, has seen a swell of sudden new voter registrations, 138,000 of whom cannot be traced.

"So of course we believe this is due to phantom voters," he said.

Even if polling is clean, Bersih says Barisan-implemented structural biases mean it could win enough seats to form a government with just 20 percent of the popular vote.

Many key Barisan seats are in sparsely populated rural areas while opposition strongholds are typically crowded urban zones, giving the pro-Barisan votes inordinate weight.

The Election Commission also is widely viewed as pro-Barisan -- which it denies -- while Najib's government controls mainstream media through printing licences.

"The issues are clear: Malapportionment, gerrymandering, independence of the electoral commission, mainstream media bias, vote-buying and now real questions about the electoral roll itself," Welsh said.

Pressured by Bersih, Najib set up a panel to study reform. Its recommendations last year included use of indelible ink, a campaign period of at least 10 days, and expanded voting for overseas Malaysians who generally seen as opposition-leaning.

"Malaysia's electoral system is stronger than ever," a spokesman for Najib's office said recently.

Paul Low, president of the anti-graft Transparency International Malaysia, backed that view, saying the reforms and intense public focus on the issue could make them the "cleanest" polls ever held in the country.

"No other election has been watched more closely than this. If people win by methods that are not honest, the backlash from the public will be bad," he said.

Bersih, however, insists much more needs to be done, particularly a thorough electoral roll clean-up.

An ongoing government inquiry has heard testimony that tens of thousands of illegal immigrants in the key state of Sabah were given citizenship in recent decades in the expectation they would vote Barisan, heightening fraud fears.

Suspicions also were aroused last month when authorities deported Nick Xenophon, an Australian senator and critic of Malaysia's electoral system.

"I believe the deportation is very telling. It is an indication of nervousness of the authorities over the elections," Ambiga said.

Malaysia has been a pillar of stability in a sometimes turbulent region, but the electoral issue, more than any other, has shown an ability to bring angry citizens to the streets.

In an apparent nod to that, Najib recently declared the results must be accepted.

"If they (the opposition) believe in democracy, they cannot reject something which has been decided by the people," he was quoted saying by state media.