KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's longest serving prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has criticised the Election Commission's decision to hold polls mid-week, saying general elections during his time in office were usually held on a "holiday" - even if it did fall on a weekday.
"Usually it was a holiday," he said at a news conference on Tuesday (Apr 10). "I don't think we want to really prevent people from participating in an election - that is their right."
There have been concerns that the May 9 election date, a Wednesday, may contribute to a low voter turnout.
Voting is not compulsory in Malaysia, although the Election Offences Act states that employers in Malaysia must allow time for their employees to vote without docking their pay.
Overseas voters would also have to take time off work if they want to go back to Malaysia to vote in their constituencies.
"I think for the village people they can come out but for the people who are working, they will find difficulty coming to vote," said Dr Mahathir, who is now contesting as an opposition politician.
"We have about 500,000 workers in Singapore. So these people should be voting but now they are deprived of their right to vote, whether it's for the government or for us," he added.
Said electoral reform group Bersih: "Those who have to 'balik kampung' to vote will be at an added disadvantage, especially those that have to return to Sabah or Sarawak from the Peninsular and vice versa.
"We can now expect to see even lower voter turnout and further hardship for all voters."
Bersih called on the federal government to declare May 9 as a public holiday, and for state governments to declare public holidays on the day before or after polling day.
"If this is not done, all employers should allow two days of unrecorded leave for all voters," it added in a statement.
At the news conference on Tuesday, Dr Mahathir also said that opposition parties had no problems contesting the polls when he was prime minister.
"In my time, two political parties opposed to me were formed and immediately they get approval, no problem with them participating in elections. One was founded by Tengku Razaleigh (which was called) Semangat 46, and the other one was by Anwar Ibrahim, which is called Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)," he said.
Dr Mahathir's party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu, was provisionally dissolved on Thursday - two days before Malaysia's parliament was dissolved - for allegedly failing to submit required documents.
Bersatu has 30 days to appeal the decision. However, it is preparing to contest under PKR's logo, along with other parties under the opposition coalition.
The veteran politician believes the dissolution of his party and the choice of election date is a deliberate bid to disadvantage the opposition.
DECISION ON DATES TO BE RESPECTED
Barisan Nasional (BN) Minister for Communications and Multimedia, Salleh Said Keruak, told Channel NewsAsia the decision on dates has to be respected.
"This is the decision of Election Commission - (an) independent body - and we have to respect it," he said in response to the criticisms.
"Surely it has considered all factors before deciding the dates."
Meanwhile, BN's deputy director of strategic communications said there was "merit" in selecting Wednesday as polling day.
The states of Terengganu, Kedah and Kelantan have their weekends on Friday and Saturday, Mr Eric See-To pointed out on his Facebook page.
"If the election is set on a Sunday, it will not be fair to those states. Likewise if an election was set on a Friday, it will not be fair for other states.
"Similarly if election was set on a Saturday, it will be a half working day for some while a full rest day for others," he explained.
The Election Commissions might have deemed this "to be fair to all states" so that results and turn-out rates would be consistent throughout the country, added Mr See-To.
He also pointed out that the US, which is "supposedly the most democratic country in the world", held its 2016 presidential election on a Tuesday.
In Malaysia, Dr Mahathir's last two general elections as prime minister, in 1995 and 1999, were held on Mondays, Mr See-To noted.