The Art of ‘buy-in’ in the age of shifting political sands

Election Commission chairman Azhar Harun says there has been no meddling by the Perikatan Nasional on his reform initiatives.

PUTRAJAYA: For Azhar Harun, who has been a lawyer his entire life, being the chairman of the Election Commission (EC) is like another stint in the courtroom, only this time at the judge’s bench.

His role, after all, is as chief arbitrator of the country’s election process.

This is one of the reasons he decided against stepping down after the change of government, despite the resignations of prominent political appointees such as Tommy Thomas who quit as attorney-general (AG) following the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan administration in February.

“My position is not like the AG. It’s like a judge,” he said in a recent interview with FMT at his office here.

When told that he was effectively saying he could outlast the current AG who happens to be his brother, Azhar, fondly known as Art among friends, only flashed a cheeky smile.

Idrus Harun, a Federal Court judge, was named as AG early last month.

But while his impish grin might suggest otherwise, Art is in fact greatly mindful of his brother’s vast experience.

“He has been in the AG’s Chambers for 27 years. It’s a great honour to the family and comes with great responsibility,” he said.

Is it a conflict of interest when two top officials are brothers? Art thinks not.

“If you want to stretch that argument, none of my family members can live in the country because the AG is my brother,” he quipped.

“Say a sibling steals something and the police open an investigation. The AG will decide whether or not to press charges. So none of his family or friends could live in Malaysia.”

Reforms, neutrality and ‘buy-in’

Art’s terms in office are similar to those of the chief justice. Both candidates for the post must go through the rulers’ council before the Agong confirms their appointments.

His credibility on the job depends to a large extent on how he engages, or is seen to engage, with stakeholders including voters and political parties.

Azhar Harun, fondly known as Art Harun, says he misses the freedom to express himself especially in a courtroom.

Like his brother, the 57-year-old lawyer-activist has a wealth of experience himself albeit in a different field. He used to pen sharp criticism of politicians from both sides of the divide and says he has no problem remaining neutral – a yardstick by which the EC is mostly judged.

He also insists he is not beholden to any political party.

In bringing about change and reforms, he said, he has to get everyone’s “buy-in”, a phrase which would feature heavily throughout the hour-long interview.

“Most of the reforms require a change of regulations, a change in the constitution and rules, so we still need the buy-in of MPs.”

He added however that the EC was not carrying out reforms “because the government thinks we should or shouldn’t”.

“We thought of certain reforms before this which are still continuing. The process of engagement will go on,” he said.

But to reform what has long been seen as an electoral process ridden with weaknesses and holes is no easy task.

With former players from the old Barisan Nasional establishment now part of the government, some even call it impossible.

But Art disagrees.

He is aware of the shifting nature of political loyalties in Malaysia at the moment as the rigid party disciplines of the past fade away. This means that getting the collective agreement of parties and blocs on any given proposal would be a long shot.

As he puts it, MPs must “buy in” to suggestions from the EC.

‘Not like snapping fingers’

The good news is, the new government has not sought to derail the EC’s reform agenda since coming to power in March.

“I haven’t been under any kind of pressure to stop whatever reform initiatives we are thinking of,” Art said.

“So far, there has been no interference at all. All reforms processes are ongoing.”

Still, it will be a long, slow journey.

“At the EC, we think of reforms, analyse, obtain feedback, make recommendations and engage with MPs to get their buy-in.

“It’s not as if we can snap our fingers and reforms happen.”

He also realises the importance of transparency in his own position, saying his role must remain an open book to be scrutinised by MPs from all parties.

“I have always said, please call me to Parliament when they have a Parliamentary Select Committee on elections. I went to see the speaker myself and told him to please call me at any time. Call me, scrutinise me, I want that. I believe in transparency and checks and balances. I don’t like concentration of power.”

Part of the system

Art, who was appointed to head the EC in September 2018, seems to have settled into his job as a government man. There is no denying that he is now part of the system – and the last 21 months have been an eye-opener on how that system works.

Once a staunch critic of the establishment, his first-hand experience has forced him to view things in a different light.

Azhar Harun seems to have settled comfortably in his job as the nation’s top election officer.

“I’ve become more realistic,” he said. “Now that I’m here, I have to work within the system. If it doesn’t work, I try to make it work.”

Fortunately, he says, his staff and secretariat are excellent, dispelling the conventional image of government servants as slow and lazy.

But he has not ditched his civil society friends although he concedes that the truth is always somewhere in between.

“I engage with them all the time,” he said. “There is common ground on which we agree, and some things with which I disagree.

“I think it is healthy. As long as civil societies argue rationally and intellectually, not emotionally, the possibility of finding a point of convergence is always there.”

But again, getting the “buy-in” of MPs remains a challenge despite last year’s unanimous vote in the Dewan Rakyat to support a drop in voting age to 18.

Now, there are expectations of automatic voter registration and constitutional amendments with the two-thirds support of MPs.

Can the unity seen last year be repeated?

For Art, it doesn’t matter which government is in place – the MPs are the heart of the matter.

“We still need to engage with MPs. They are the policymakers, they will debate on whatever law needs to be promulgated or amended.”

Reforms, small and big

Meanwhile, the EC has been busy improving the electoral process in areas that do not need the involvement of politicians and Parliament.

These include smaller operational changes to create a better voting experience such as reducing the time spent waiting in line at polling centres.

The commission also introduced live streams from the counting centre during elections in a bid to ensure greater transparency.

“These are simple things but they are effective, impactful, cheap and don’t require anything.”

Now, it is up to the public to make use of the changes introduced so far.

“I have put the electoral process in all its nudity for the public to view,” Art said, noting that not many appear to watch the live streams despite criticising the EC for a lack of transparency.

He believes much of the criticism has to do with issues requiring constitutional amendments which would need two-thirds support in the Dewan Rakyat.

He gave the example of redelineation, which has been a point of contention due to the lopsided representation of constituencies.

“Of course I agree with that, but if you amend the constitution, I will do it. It needs a two-thirds majority.

“That is why I say the process of buy-in is very important. That is the most important part of reforms. I’m not creating excuses, but this is the route we need to take in every country, not just here.”

As the interview ends, Art hesitates when asked to re-enact his arrival at his spacious office suite.

But even the country’s top election referee eventually agreed to the media’s demand before quickly qualifying his initial reluctance.

“I love my private life,” he said. “Also, before this, I could go to court and argue. I miss court. I miss the freedom. I have a lot to express.”

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