Friday, March 12, 2004

Making the case for electoral reform- Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad

It is election time again. In Malaysia, the results of elections are not the issue – the ruling Barisan Nasional (and its predecessor, the Alliance Party) has always won. The question, as it has always been, is to what degree.

A significant contribution to this is the built-in advantages that BN possess: a subservient mass media, seemingly a less-than independent electoral commission, huge financial resources, and use (or rather, misuse) of the government machinery. Having elections alone are insufficient indicators of democracy.

However, another advantage that goes with the status quo is the first- past-the-post system. In countries with developed two-party systems, such as the US or UK, the system benefits the two mainstream parties.

In Malaysia, where the BN has always been in power and electoral constituencies have been gerrymandered repeatedly to their advantage, along with the rest of the mentioned built-in benefits; they have been the sole beneficiary from the system.

The major flaw in the first-past-the-post system is in its exaggeration of votes for the status quo. In 1999, for example, the BN maintained its traditional two-thirds majority, which has continued to make the Malaysian Parliament a mere rubber-stamp.

They won 148 seats (151 upon PBS joining BN), compared to the Opposition’s meagre 45 seats (42). This meant that they had 77 percent of the seats, even prior to PBS’ return. This however disguised the relatively slight majority they earned through popular votes. BN won 58 percent of the votes, and here the Opposition did relatively well, at 42 percent. If Parliamentary seats in Malaysia were based on proportional representation, BN would have just over half the seats, and would not be able to amend the Federal Constitution without support from some of the Opposition MPs.

Political instabilities

Going down the level, BN states such as Selangor, Penang, Kedah and Perlis would be much more contestable than the current number of seats in the legislative assembly would seem to suggest. Similarly, the BA rout of BN in Kelantan and Terengganu would be less impressive.

However, those who defend the case of first-past-the-post system cite the benefits of the link between MPs and constituencies, which, would either be totally discarded or at the very least undermined in any other system.

Countries which use proportional representations too have appeared to suffer from political instabilities. The government tends to be based on coalitions as rarely does any one political party command a significant majority.

Furthermore the incumbent method is simple for the voters, and the results can be known quickly without having repeated calculations in determining the outcome of elections.

Indonesia, which has utilised another variant of proportional representation in the 1999 elections, has adopted a complicated method called the open list proportional representation system. Their elections have been notorious for the sheer complexity in trying to understand it.

It is important, however, to refute some of the arguments here. The recent Star survey cited that nearly half of the voters in Malaysia do not know their MPs. If the electorate do not know their representatives, how can one defend the MP-constituent link as a valid justification for the first-past-the-post system? Furthermore, most proportional representation systems still maintain the MP-constituent link, albeit it is less exclusive – unless one is to adopt the Israeli national list system. The Israeli Knesset represents the proportion of votes of the Israeli electorate for political parties, subject to a 1.5 percent qualifying threshold.

Northern Ireland employs the single transferable vote system in multi member constituencies for European and Stormond (the Northern Ireland Assembly) elections. Here, the electorate votes for a candidate (not a party list) by order of preference. The votes are then transferred either from candidates that have won outright or those which have garnered too little support. Hence a constituency might have more than one representative. Australia too adopts this system, although single member constituencies dominate.

Popular vote

One that is realistic for Malaysia, however, would be one that is still rooted in the traditional Westminster single MP-constituency link; yet make up for its lack of proportionality to popular votes. Examples of those which adopt variants of this model include New Zealand, Germany (the system which allowed 19-year-old MP, Anna Luehrmann, who I interviewed last year, to be elected on a Green Party ticket) and the Jenkins Report on Electoral Reform in the UK. Generally, while maintaining the typical vote for a single member of parliament from the constituent, the electorate has another vote which is used to choose a particular party.

Thus, the legislature will be composed from a mixture of constituent MPs, and party-list MPs selected so as to ensure that the final result reflects the overall popular vote of participating political parties.

Another way is to retain the one-voter one-vote system we have now, but after constituent MPs have been elected using the usual first-past-the-post system, a proportionate amount of MPs is added from a party list to ensure that it reflects the popular vote.

Therefore, a mixed system that is still largely based on the old first-past the post system will also tend to be less fragile than the fractured coalitions that are common in governments elected in a proportional representation system.

One can also point out that a more representative system will also be an important foundation for more consensus politics which are important in a multiracial, multireligious Malaysia – which currently is presented with many ideologies that are seen to be poles apart.

It would be more difficult for any one party to impose its ideology on the country; instead the bigger political parties would have to learn to administer based on tolerance and co-operation.

Paradoxically, however, it would undermine the need for a pre-election coalition that is common in Malaysia (as opposed to post-elections coalitions). Currently, what Khoo Boo Teik argues as "the cultural imperative" of BA is highly important as it is futile for the opposition to go against one another when all of them have to face the formidable BN at the same time.

Proposed solution

In any system that incorporates even a minimal proportional representation element, parties that meet a certain threshold will have candidates added after constituent MPs have been determined.

Another consideration is our federal system, with two-level elections. If one is to refer to Britain, it is useful to note that while the first-past-the-post system is used in Parliamentary elections, whereas elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are done on mixed systems, known as the additional member system. As mentioned, the Stormond elections employ a single-transferable vote system. Thus, one can suggest starting a mixed system at state level first, to gauge its stability and functionality in the Malaysian situation, and maintaining the first-past-the-post system at the federal level in the meantime.

The proposed solution is one of the many available methods. However, there seems little doubt that electoral reform is needed in Malaysia, at the very least at state level, if not incorporating Parliamentary elections as well.

Of course, this suggestion or proposal seems like pure fantasy at this point of time. Can one expect the ruling coalition when it is fraught with enough election abuses as it is now; to adopt further reforms that although is in the interest of the country and its people, will weaken their hold on the country? I don’t think so.
NIK NAZMI NIK AHMAD is a Malaysian activist, writer and commentator based in London. His newsblog can be read at

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