APRIL 27 — After six blissful days of silence in the London skies, the ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland has dissipated somewhat — for now, say some experts — thus allowing flights to resume over the UK airspace ferrying thousands of stranded people back into the country.
Anyone living in Britain whilst the ash cloud was in place could be forgiven for thinking that general elections in this country are non-events. Yet the current one being fought over is one of the most important — and exciting — elections taking place here for a long time. For the first time since the Labour party won power under Tony Blair, a change in government is a real possibility.
What’s more, the rather surprising resurgence of the Liberal Democrats is threatening to blow the race wide open: for the first time in generations, the British electorate may actually have a credible third party to vote for, rather than the usual Labour or Conservative parties.
Still, as far as Malaysia is concerned it probably doesn’t really matter who wins the UK elections (we don’t actually feature very highly on the British radar, unless if it’s for pesky things like hanging British drug dealers). What’s more fascinating is observing the way democracy is practised in the UK.
In the UK, all the major political parties — defined as the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats in Great Britain as well as the Scottish National Party in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales and finally in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic & Labour Party, and the Ulster Unionist Party — are entitled to air a number of party election broadcasts (PEBs) during an election campaign. Any other parties that are contesting one-sixth or more of the seats are also entitled to a PEB.
And what are PEBs? Well, PEBs are guaranteed airtime slots on all the public service channels, which in reality means all the five major terrestrial channels in the UK (and any national radio stations). Furthermore, channels are required to broadcast the PEBs for all the major political parties during peaktime viewing, that is, between 6pm and 10.30pm during the campaign period.
Can you imagine this happening in Malaysia? Imagine seeing the likes of Tok Guru Nik Aziz on RTM, telling us why we should vote PAS in an election. Or Karpal Singh extolling the virtues of DAP.
In fact, why shouldn’t this happen in Malaysia? We may not have the concept of public service broadcasting, but this shouldn’t deter us from passing similar rules to enable equal airtime to all major parties. It is in the public’s interest to know what all the major parties stand for after all, and not everyone has access to the internet.
One new feature in the current UK election campaign is live debates amongst the three major party leaders. For three consecutive Thursdays leading up to election day, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Shadow Leader David Cameron of the Conservative party and Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats face each other in a series of live, televised debates. This has certainly livened up the campaign.
Nick Clegg, once seen as the rank outsider, has pushed himself and his party forward after his polished performance in the first debate (so much so that the Labour party is in danger of being relegated to the third place).
Would such a thing happen in Malaysia? I’d like to think so, but I shan’t be holding my breath in hope! Even so, imagine the prospect of live debates amongst our party leaders. How would Najib handle Anwar (and vice-versa) in a live situation, knowing that millions of Malaysians were watching, and judging his performance? And how would our leaders deal with the aftermath of such an event, where their every word can be analysed and picked apart?
One other feature of the UK elections that I would dearly love to see incorporated into our own elections is the way overseas British citizens are treated. Britons abroad can vote in UK elections, either by registering to vote by post or by proxy (i.e. to allow someone else to vote on their behalf).
Contrast that with my own position as an overseas Malaysian: despite being a citizen, I cannot vote in our country’s elections because I live abroad. However, if I were a student or someone posted abroad on behalf of the country (e.g. in the army or diplomatic services), I would be able to vote.
As our country already allows some citizens abroad to vote in elections, why not extend this so that all citizens abroad are able to vote?
If the various high commissions and embassies around the world can register the birth of new Malaysians, then it shouldn’t be beyond their capabilities to register Malaysians who live abroad (in fact, most do this already) and organise a day when overseas Malaysians can cast their votes, and then send the votes securely back to the Suruhanjaya Pilihanraya in Malaysia using diplomatic bags.
The current rules effectively disenfranchise a large number of Malaysians, which is unfair. We are, after all, still Malaysian citizens.
Nonetheless, like our own elections two years ago, the British general election is shaping up to be an interesting one. It seems clear that everyone wants a change. But what is the exact change that everyone is after?
A change in government? Keep the current government, but with a new leader? Or, perhaps, a minority government? Despite the pollsters’ predictions, nobody really knows. The skies above Britain may be clearing up from the volcanic ash cloud, but down here on the ground, as far as the election results are concerned, the picture is still far from clear.