EC ready for snap polls, pandemic measures and all

Azhar Harun says the upcoming Chini by-election in Pahang will be a test case for conducting polls in the shadow of Covid-19.

PUTRAJAYA: The recent political uncertainty in the country has prompted the Election Commission (EC) to brace itself for snap polls, even if it means reinventing the election process to adjust to measures against the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are on alert. It will be challenging but we’re up for it,” EC chairman Azhar Harun told FMT in a recent interview at his office here.

Under the law, the EC has 60 days to call for a general election once it is notified of the dissolution of Parliament.

Rumours of snap polls have been brewing as Perikatan Nasional (PN) continues to hold on to power with a fragile majority, amid constant claims by Pakatan Harapan (PH) that it has the numbers needed to return to Putrajaya.

Azhar, under whom the EC has held seven federal and state by-elections, said the coming Chini polls on July 4 would act as a guide on conducting elections with Covid-19 measures in place.

These measures include standard steps at public places nationwide such as social distancing, the use of face masks and hand sanitiser, as well as temperature checks.

Azhar said the EC was in the process of coming out with other initiatives to ensure the safety of voters and election workers.

“If you are coughing or have a high temperature, you go to a special tent and the (EC) staff there who will be fully clothed in personal protection equipment will attend to you,” he said, adding that such tents would be set up at 13 polling centres in Chini.

Azhar said the EC is also looking at recommending time slots to stagger voters, to prevent overcrowding on polling day.

He said the target is to limit voters to about 400 per stream.

“People are encouraged to come at a certain time. (But we) can only encourage and cannot force, as it is the voter’s right to come whenever they want between 8am and 5.30pm,” he said.

Azhar said the new health requirements also mean that political parties and candidates must think of novel ways to campaign.

He singled out social media as an effective campaigning tool.

But he agreed there was also the worry of ruling parties getting more coverage on official media in the absence of conventional campaigning methods.

“My worry is that there will be over-coverage for the government, so I would like to implore the relevant ministry to give coverage also to the opposition as I believe there needs to be a level playing field,” said Azhar, who was appointed as EC chairman in September 2018.