Is Putrajaya’s ban on political gatherings for Melaka polls fair? Analysts weigh in amid appeals for relaxation

The Election Commission has yet to issue its SOPs for the Melaka polls. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
The Election Commission has yet to issue its SOPs for the Melaka polls. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

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KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 26 ― The federal government’s prohibition on physical gatherings for the Melaka state election has drawn mixed reactions from politicians on both sides of the divide, and even from those within the same parties.

PKR communications director Fahmi Fadzil questioned the justification for the ban under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988, noting that the government has simultaneously allowed the Malaysia Cup to be played before fans in stadiums on October 29.

“What is perplexing is that Melaka is in Phase 4 of the NRP but the prohibition that is in place puts the state as if it is back in Phase 1,” Fahmi said of the National Recovery Plan.

“People will read that it is designed to encumber certain parties and to me surely when you look at other countries, the guidelines are meant to facilitate not to frustrate so what is the meaning of campaigning when we can’t meet voters, it is absolutely ridiculous.”

The Lembah Pantai MP said the decision to implement the ban without consultation was also against the spirit of the Memorandum of Understanding on Transformation and Political Stability between PH and the federal government.

The government should meet all political stakeholders to develop alternatives to poll-related gatherings, similar to how it met with businesses to develop standard operating procedures for their respective economic sectors, he said.

Fahmi acknowledged the need to “walk a tightrope” but said it would be better not to have the state election under such restrictions.

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia geostrategist Prof Azmi Hassan agreed that the ban should be reviewed but rejected the suggestion that it could be politically motivated.

Instead, he said the health minister chose to implement the ban for public health reasons, noting that the move disproportionately affected the minister’s party.

Political parties should also be savvy enough to be able to use social media for campaigning, Azmi said when reiterating that Umno would face greater disadvantages from the ban than others.

“For example, Datuk Seri Najib Razak can easily attract a large crowd and this can built a perception to fence voters that Umno has a huge support, so this prohibition hinders Umno by the decision was made by an Umno minister, that is why I said the decision has no political objective except for health concerns,” he told Malay Mail.

However, Azmi said the government should still reconsider the total ban and at least allow the election candidates to still carry out the traditional constituency walkabouts.

“Perhaps they can limit the number of people in a group for walkabouts, maybe no more than five per group and they are not entering business premises or homes and must practise physical distance. I think that this can be adjusted before the campaign period begins,” he said.

Azmi also said the government should announce the format of campaigning when the election was called to ensure fairness to all parties involved.

Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin’s decision to implement the ban has been unpopular with both sides of the political divide.

Melaka Umno deputy chief Mohamad Ali Mohamad previously alleged that Khairy’s decision would obstruct voters’ participation in democracy.

His colleague who is also caretaker Melaka chief minister Datuk Seri Sulaiman Md Ali said some party election directors were disappointed they would not be able to campaign door-to-door and hoped to appeal the ban, The Star reported today.

“Hopefully, the rules for campaigning will be relaxed somewhat. But if not, we will still respect the rules,” he was quoted as saying.

The newspaper also quoted Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia information chief Datuk Wan Saiful Wan Jan urging the government to review the ban.

“This is necessary as the information disseminated to the voters will reach them more effectively,” he was quoted as saying.

PAS deputy president Datuk Seri Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man previously welcomed the ban, but the Islamist party’s Melaka chief Datuk Kamarudin Sidek has joined the chorus calling for a review.

“Many elderly voters don’t have electronic gadgets and it is difficult for us to woo them,” he said.

The party, he said, could only target young voters via social media.

“Hence I appeal for the ban to be lifted so we can reach senior voters,” he was quoted as saying by The Star.

DAP too has panned the decision. Its secretary-general Lim Guan Eng claimed the ban was because the ruling political parties were afraid to face voters in Melaka after allegedly failing to rein in Covid-19 infections that dampened the economy further.

However, Umno information chief Shahril Hamdan said the party should take this opportunity to show that it can campaign effectively even within a pandemic.

“Umno has said in the past that it will accept and obey SOPs. Now it's time for us to prove it. Obviously, we can plead whataboutism and point out why stop this and not that, but I'm not sure that approach is helpful.

“The line has to be drawn somewhere and a judgment call would've had to be made, especially given what happened in Sabah. I believe the MOH and the Election Commision would have made a decision based on the balance of probabilities and these decisions will always have pros and cons.

“I'd prefer it if we accepted it and moved on, trying our best to win the argument digitally. In any case, the public seem okay with this latest announcement, so political parties will have to be as well,” Shahril told Malay Mail.

Others who accepted the ban and said they would strive to work within the constraints included the Melaka Parti Amanah Negara communication director Zairi Suboh who told The Star his team will boost its online campaign.

“We are not in favour of the ban but we are left with no choice but to tap into digital platforms to convey our messages to voters.

“We may maximise the use of the TikTok app as it seems more effective and also work closely with the mainstream media,” he was quoted as saying.

Likewise, Melaka Gerakan chairman Datuk Seri Gan Peng Lam said his party’s election machinery has been prepared to go digital since early this year.

“We have shifted our focus to digital platforms although we want traditional election campaigns to woo our supporters,” Gan was quoted as saying by The Star today.

Gerakan was previously a component party of the Barisan Nasional that is anchored by Umno, but has since switched sides and joined the Perikatan Nasional coalition, which is anchored by Bersatu together with PAS.

The Star reported a coalition of independents who plan to run in all 28 Melaka state seats commending the ban.

“We commend the Health Minister for his bold move. We, the new kid on the block, have decided to adopt technology as part of our strategy for the state election.

“We have collected details of voters and are trying to connect directly with them by sending voice messages to remind them to reject greedy politicians,” its campaign director K. Murali Krishna told the paper.

He alleged that the coalition chairman Aziah Harun was the first to raise concern on the emergence of the Delta variant in Melaka.

Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun said the ban would affect all major parties as it would require new approaches to campaigning.

Umno could be more upset with the decision as its strongholds were in rural and semi-rural seats where physical campaigning traditionally performed better and Internet coverage was poorer compared to urban seats.

“The same applies to PKR and Amanah, whereas DAP could perhaps fare better in online campaigning with its mostly urban or suburban seats where network coverage is better and voters stress more on issues, which could be delivered online.

“Well, campaigning is well underway, so unless some parties could come up with some brilliant compromise between hygienic safety and campaigning needs, it looks set to be a mostly online campaign, a first in the country,” he said.

Earlier this month, four assemblymen withdrew support for Umno’s Sulaiman as the Melaka chief minister, leading to the dissolution of the state assembly and forcing an early state election to be held on November 20 alongside the pandemic.

Official election campaigning can only start from November 8, which is Nomination Day but politicians have already been gathering in Melaka ahead of that.

Among them was Najib who was shown mingling with crowds of supporters both in an enclosed space festooned with Umno and Barisan Nasional banners, and at an open air restaurant last week. The two videos have since been widely shared on social media.

The Election Commission has yet to issue its SOPs for the Melaka polls.

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