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Sabah politicians are to be blamed for the high number of phantom voters in the state's electoral roll, said a Kota Kinabalu High Court judge in a landmark election petition judgment today.

Justice Muhammad Kamil Awang said that these political party leaders had abused their powers and responsibilities in letting non-citizens in the state to acquire blue identity cards, which allows them to register as voters.

"It is not done as a trust for public good but as an opportunity for private gains," he said.

He said this in his decision today ordering former Sabah chief minister Yong Teck Lee, a member of a Barisan Nasional component party, to vacate his state assembly seat in Likas on the grounds that the electoral roll for the constituency was illegal as it contained high numbers of "phantom voters".

His ruling paves the way for a by-election in the state seat. The petition was brought by two other losing candidates in the 1999 state elections - veteran politician and former Sabah chief minister Mohd Harris Salleh of Parti Bersekutu and Parti Bersatu Sabah supreme council member Chong Eng Leong.

Muhammad, however, added that there was no evidence of a conspiracy between the state government and the Barisan Nasional (BN) at the highest level to have the immigrants registered as voters.

"(There is) not an iota of evidence to show the existence of an agreement between the prime minister or any other ministers with the Sabah BN regarding the registration of disqualified persons or non-citizens in the electoral roll," he said.

Party involvement

The judge however indicated that party leaders had been involved in activities of using their influence in getting identity cards for these immigrants and have them registered as voters.

"From Oct 21, 1996, there was an exercise to recruit Umno members for three days which attracted 10,211 new members," said Muhammad.

"The new members applied for identity cards, but only 180 applications from these members were approved by the National Registration Department. The rest were rejected."

Muhammad also observed that a witness had testified that illegal immigrants obtained their identity cards in a relatively short time, sometimes as little as three months.

"The witness also testified that of the 43,000 new Umno members recruited in the 1980s, only 14,000 had genuine identity cards," he added.

Muhammad also said that political appointments of the district chief to oversee the applications for identity cards were vital in many non-citizens obtaining identity cards and thus be eligible to vote.

Ticked off

The judge ticked off the Election Commission (EC) for not paying attention to various complaints on the existence of phantom voters in the electoral roll.

He also cited various examples of non-citizens with identity cards as well as persons convicted in courts for having false identity cards being found to be registered as voters.

"It is wrong for EC to allow non-citizens and disqualified persons to be on the electoral roll as voters," he added.

Chong, when contacted by malaysiakini , said the verdict was a "people's victory", but did not want to comment on the possibility of him standing as a candidate again in the by-election.

"The judge has said that he will write to the EC in due course to inform them of his decision and we will have to wait for that first," he said.

The commission's spokesperson told malaysiakini that the EC must be served a formal notice by the High Court on the nullity of the seat. He added that a by-election will then be held within 60-days after the seat has been declared vacant.

According to the law, election petitions are not appealable. The state BN is schedule to meet early next week to discuss the matter.

Clean up

Meanwhile, Sarawak's State Reform Party (STAR) said it was worried about the menace of phantom voters especially given that election in the state is due to be held before the end of this year.

"The verdict casts a dark cloud on the integrity of the EC. Who else could be responsible for the registration of phantom voters except the commission?" said the party's secretary-general Francis Siah.

He urged the EC in Sarawak to clean up the electoral roll before the state election.