Ordinary Malaysians should be given the chance to hear and and debate fully the reasons for the proposed system so they can gauge if it will improve the electoral system, writes Johan Saravanamuttu.
On 13 January 2020 the chairman of the Electoral Reform Committee, Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, submitted his interim report to the prime minister for a switch to a proportional representation electoral system. Since then, we have heard little of it except for sporadic discussions of the proposal by some individuals.
Bersih 2.0 has called for the interim report – the outcome of consultations with some 21 stakeholders among civil society groups and political parties – to be made public. Its chairperson, Thomas Fann, had earlier published an article that was an excellent overall evaluation of electoral reforms undertaken by the Pakatan Harapan government to date.
Among Bersih’s many recommendations were the lowering of the voting age to 18 and the reconstituting of the Electoral Commission with new members. The PH government has already accomplished both these objectives to its credit. The issue of political funding remains unresolved with the proposed legislation still in abeyance.
Besides Bersih, a specific group calling for electoral reforms is Tindak, which has been actively monitoring elections and ensuring the transparency of the electoral processes.
Proportional representation proposal
The larger goal of electoral reform has always been to tackle the acknowledged flaws of the present first-past-the-post electoral system. I would like to focus on the current proposal for a switch from the present system to a proportional representation system at the federal level. Recall the concerns before the 2018 general election and even earlier: much was said about the flaws of the existing system, especially the disproportionality of rural to urban wards.
In a chapter of a book on electoral politics published in 2016 (Power Sharing in a Divided Nation), I delved into the flaws of the first-past-the-post system, citing the work of academics Sothi Rachagan, Lim Hong Hai, Donald Horowitz and Clive Kessler, among others, about the system’s problems. Bersih, in its excellent work, has already taken up many of the issues scholars have raised. And as noted above, the government has undertaken piecemeal implementation of some reforms.
Two features of the present first-past-the-post system – gerrymandering and, more crucially, malapportionment – are its major flaws.
The first famously allows the ruling coalition to carve out many seats incorporating the greatest number of its supporters in constituency boundary review exercises every eight years.
The second problem harks back to our British legacy, which gives undue and unequal weight to rural constituencies compared to urban ones. The rationale for this – that rural folks have less access to influence policymakers – is no longer valid.
Fann has pointed out that intra-state malapportionment reached unacceptable levels in Sarawak, where a constituency such as Igan has 19,079 voters compared to Bandar Kuching with 81,632 (a ratio of 4.3:1). More strikingly, on the peninsula, one can point to Bangi having 178,790 voters while Putrajaya has a mere 27,306 – a ratio of 6.5:1!
Wong Chin Huat, who serves on the Electoral Reform Committee, was among the first to advocate a switch to a mixed-mode system incorporating proportional representation and has presented his views in various forums. One excellent idea put forward is that a mixed-mode system would allow for better gender representation in politics. Only 14.4% of parliamentarians are women. Putting more women into party lists will ensure a higher representation.
It would seem the Electoral Reform Committee’s interim report has factored in some of Wong’s proposals. Let me attempt a quick review of the proposal, as highlighted by committee chairman Abdul Rashid.
A party-list system will replace the single-member constituency plurality system. This means each political party will list candidates in order of priority, and each party will win seats (constituencies) in proportion to the popular votes won.
This proportional representation system will be used only for the 222 parliamentary constituencies, as indicated in Article 46 of the Malaysian Constitution. The winning party or coalition of parties must thus secure at least 50% of votes to form a government. A minimum threshold – to be determined, such as 5% of votes – is required to win a seat.
Effectively, the proposal will create a mixed-mode electoral system with state-level elections under the existing first-past-the-post system and a federal system under proportional representation.
The proportional representation system tackles the main flaw of the first-past-the-post system ie “manufactured majorities”, a term coined by political scientists. In 2013 BN formed the government with 47.4% of the popular vote while in 2018 PH only won 48.3% of the votes.
Issues of concern
Fann has pointed out that the proposal still does not address the issue of disproportionality among states. For example, he notes that Selangor has 22 parliamentary seats (or one for every 100,000 voters) while Johor, with 64,000 voters on average per seat, has 26 seats. He opines that Article 46 of the Constitution, with its current stipulation of seat numbers for each state and each federal territory, should be amended. The whole peninsula should be a mega constituency, with Sabah and Sarawak as special separate units.
One researcher has expressed concern that fringe political parties, such as a “hudud party”, could surface because proportional representation would allow small parties to win seats.
From what we can gather about the Electoral Reform Committee proposal, there is merit in addressing the cardinal principle of democracy, namely, one person, one vote, sometimes also known as “one person, one vote, one value”.
My misgiving is that the committee seems to want a quick fix in not amending Article 46, thus leaving state-level elections untouched. Neither is there any remedy proposed for the lack of locally elected councils or an elected Senate.
A possible positive consequence of the proportional representation system is the elimination of vote banks such as Felda seats, thereby breaking the grip of patronage politics which has always favoured ruling coalitions. It is not clear at this point whether the proportional representation system will favour the current PH coalition apart from the fact that its strong urban showing would be better represented under this system.
A potential issue is that two different systems – first-past-the-post and proportional representation – will coexist in parallel at the state and federal levels. Will this turn out to be a problem? The jury is still out on this matter, which deserves further discussion and debate in the public sphere.
Obviously, many more issues could still surface which will not be apparent until there is a full airing of the interim report before the committee submits the final report in August this year.
In a new Malaysia, we would expect complete transparency of policies and proposals from the government. The current poor information and lack of full disclosure of the Electoral Reform Committee’s proposal for such an important step as implementing a new system of elections is unacceptable.
Citizens should be given the opportunity to hear, discuss and debate fully the reasons for the proposed proportional representation system so they can gauge if its merits will surpass its potential demerits.Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
7 February 2020