Elections are always messy. Consider what happened in 2013: ruling coalition Barisan Nasional won the most parliamentary seats but the opposition took home the popular vote. How was that possible? Gerrymandering – or the dark art of drawing up of a legislative map that favours a political party or, in this case, the government.
There are two ways to go about this. You could “pack” all the voters who hate you and cram them into one district. You will lose that district by a landslide but have a leg up in all others. Or “crack” a neighbourhood that loathes you into chunks that you attach to other regions where you are loved. So your haters’ votes are spread around and diluted.
Taken to extremes, you could carve out an entire constituency where the majority votes for you, thereby ensuring the scales are tipped in your favour. This happened in 2002, when the Election Commission redrew the electoral boundaries and created the country’s smallest parliamentary seat: Putrajaya.
Gerrymandering is not unique to Malaysia; it’s an ongoing problem in other matured democracies as well. But it is one of those issues that rile up social activists. Just last week Bersih 2.0 called for a review of the country’s electoral system.
It wanted a moving away from the current first-past-the-post system to adopting proportional representation. The backdrop here is the high court’s dismissal of the Selangor state government’s challenge against the Election Commission’s exercise to redraw electoral boundaries.
First-past-the-post is the simplest form of voting where a citizen is presented with names of the nominated candidates and that person votes by choosing only one of them. This has been practiced since independence.
The winning candidate is the person who wins the most votes, and the winning party is the one with the most victors. Hence, “winner takes all”. Despite its simplicity, one of its drawbacks is: it relies on the drawing of electoral boundaries.
This is where the election commission comes in. It has a duty to review the boundaries of state and parliamentary constituencies. Activists such as Bersih 2.0, however, accuse the commission of gerrymandering and malapportionment, or the unequal distribution of voters between seats.
Case in point, when Putrajaya was created, it only had 850 voters. Johor Baru was the largest constituency with 90,187 voters – or one vote in Putrajaya was equivalent to 1,061 in Johor Baru. But, due to the first-past-the-post system, both registered one MP each.
So to combat these shenanigans, activists press for an alternative system. The most common one is proportional representation. Here, political groups of any shape and size are represented in legislature in proportion to their strength in the electorate.
It means that everyone should have the right to fair representation. Last year, PAS election director Mustafa Ali suggested this system and proposed a framework based on popular votes.
“Take for example in Kelantan where we have 45 state seats. So if one party that contest gets 60% of the popular seats, then they would get 60% of the total seats in the state.”
However this is taking proportional representation at its simplest form and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For example, who would be your member of parliament? Or how many voters equal one seat?
To achieve proportionality, many use lists, where political parties present a list of candidates to voters on a national or state level.
The degree of proportionality also varies; it is determined by factors such as the precise formula used to allocate seats, the number of seats in each constituency or in the elected body as a whole, and the level of any minimum threshold for election.
There are few variants but one that is seeing immense popularity among the free-and-fair-election folk, especially Bersih, is the system used by the Germans.
It is called mixed-member proportional representation (MMPR) and straddles between proportionality and first past the post.
The first half of the members of legislature are elected through the first-past-the-post system; the other half is elected by a party-list vote so that each party has its appropriate share of seats in the legislature.
In Malaysia’s case, say if it has 222 parliamentary seats, meaning 111 seats are determined first-past-the-post style while the remaining 111 is determined by a party-list vote.
Here’s how it works: Ali is a Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) diehard but the party is not contesting his constituency of Lembah Pantai. It is however contesting other seats throughout the country.
On polling day, Ali will see a ballot paper with two columns. The first is a list of potential MPs for his constituency and this first-past-the-post style where Ali picks a person and should that person win, he or she becomes the next Lembah Pantai MP. The second column lists the parties contesting throughout the country and this makes up the party-list vote.
To make his vote count, Ali has to pick someone on the left and a party – in his case, it’s PSM – on the right. So PSM despite not contesting in Lembah Pantai is able to get votes across the nation. It doesn't matter if Ali found that all the candidates on the left didn't meet his standards because he could still vote for PSM on the right. All the party needs to do is meet the minimum threshold – usually a percentage of the overall votes – for a seat in the Dewan Rakyat.
That’s the sales pitch of this system: Each voter gets two votes.The first vote is for the political party the voter chooses. This is called the party vote and largely decides the total number of seats each political party gets in Parliament. The second vote is to choose the MP the voter wants to represent the electorate they live in. This is called the electorate vote. The candidate who gets the most votes wins. They do not have to get more than half the votes.
One country that has adopted this is New Zealand and it immediately saw higher voter turnout.
Advantages of MMPR
- Moving to proportional representation may offer would give minority parties and independent candidates a better chance of winning seats in Parliament.
- The current first past the post electoral system is considered unrepresentative, as candidates can be elected with a very small share of the votes while all other votes cast in the constituency are wasted.
- Ensure that the parties would have to appeal to their core supporters, rather than a small number of so called “swing” voters’ in marginal seats.
- It could be argued that proportional representation delivers fairer treatment of minority parties and independent candidates.
- Fewer votes are ‘wasted’ as more people’s preferences are taken into account.
- Potentially offer greater and more-representative choice for voters.
- Encourage turn-out and reduce apathy.
- Rarely produces an absolute majority for one party, however, it could be argued that proportional representation ensures greater continuity of government and requires greater consensus in policy-making.
But the disadvantages are aplenty, too. The most obvious one is the maths behind determining who gets how many and what seats in legislature.
Political scientist Wong Chin Huat gives a break down of how seats are allocated in Germany while New Zealand uses a mathematical formula called Sainte Lague allocation formula. These are not impossible to comprehend but complex and require a significant amount of voter education.
Also because of the nature of proportional representation, it has the potential to produce weak coalition governments rather than strong majority governments. This can lead to indecision, compromise and even legislative paralysis such as what is happening with German Chancellor Angela Merkel after coalition talks with liberals and the Greens collapsed.
Kamarul Zaman Yusoff, a senior lecturer at Universiti Utara Malaysia, also believes a proportional representation system is surely a better alternative than the current first-past-the-post system.
Disadvantages of MMPR
- Under first past the post, MPs serve the constituency they campaign in. This makes them more inclined to tackle important local issues.
- The adoption of list systems weakens the link between the elected representative and his or her constituency.
- The greater complexity and choice that proportional representation allows can put voters off voting, by requiring them to have a greater knowledge of individual and party positions.
- PR can potentially provide a route for extremists to force their way into the political mainstream: under a first-past-the-post electoral system this would be unlikely to happen.
- Some would say proportional representation produces “weak” coalition governments rather than “strong” majority governments, which arguably can lead to indecision, compromise and even legislative paralysis.
- Reduce accountability to voters, as an ousted party of government can retain office by finding new coalition partners after an election.
Clearly multi-member proportional representation has its fair share of problems. However it has been deployed by a wide range of countries in some form or another throughout the world. But why raise the suggestion of this system now? It’s because gerrymandering and malapportionment deny Malaysians to participate in a fair fight.
Here’s a dose of reality: opinion pollster Merdeka Centre found that young people are not keen to even register to vote in the coming general election, primarily due to a large degree of distrust for politicians.
The centre also found that the poor voter registration was also due to the lack of engagement by political parties with voters.
It is also believed that young voters from the middle class were considering not voting or spoiling their ballots due to unhappiness over the perceived similarities between both coalitions.
The only way to maximise participation is if voting becomes more equitable where even minority or niche parties can have a stake in the country’s political narrative. Barisan Nasional will definitely not want a multi-member proportional representation because it takes the power significantly from its hands. It’s not advantageous.
In fact, if based on the Merdeka Centre survey, Barisan Nasional has nothing to lose: the most jaded lot were the Chinese and the Indians. But all is not well with the Malays either, given that a sizeable chunk also make up the disenchanting numbers.
The good news is: Malaysia’s institutions – parliament et al – are matured enough for the country to have a go at multi-member proportional representation. It may just be the fix political parties need to woo younger voters. After all if the system proves difficult, it can always revert to first past the post. The question is, will Barisan Nasional give in?
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