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Proportional representation would uphold the real essence of democracy

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Proportional representation would go a long way in making Malaysia a more inclusive society, writes Benedict Lopez.

Proportional representation is defined as an electoral system where the electorate are proportionately represented through members of parliament based on the votes cast for their respective parties.

Proportional representation is a more democratic form of representation than the conventional first-past-the-post system currently practised in many countries.

The latter does not uphold the real essence of parliamentary democracy as the votes received by a party are not reflected in its parliamentary representation (ie in terms of the number of members of parliament from that party). The realistic hopes of the people are not properly reflected under this system and legislation is frequently bulldozed through parliament just because the party has a sheer majority of seats in parliament, at times only a simple majority.

For all its shortcomings, at least in western countries using the first-past-the-post system, parliamentary constituencies are created based on the population density of the respective areas. Unfortunately, in many developing countries, gerrymandering results in the delineation and re-delineation of parliamentary constituencies often favouring the ruling party.

Proportional representation attempts to resolve the unfairness of existing parliamentary systems where the largest parties receive a disproportionately high number of seats, while the smaller parties are deprived of their real representation (based on the votes they received).

Time and again, established parties win control of parliament with as little as only 35 per cent of total votes cast. In Canada, governments are regularly formed by parties with the support of under 40 per centof votes cast.

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The opponents of proportional representation may extol the virtues of the conventional electoral system by arguing that representation of the people is more effective via a member of parliament representing a particular constituency.

This argument can be nullified if local council elections are held and local councillors undertake the constituency duties of members of parliament. Parliamentarians should focus on deliberating issues at the national and international level.

To put forward the case for proportional representation, we must ask the question: what is the actual meaning of democracy and how can democracy effectively work?

My own view is that we should seek not a simple majority rule but the genuine voice of the people through proportional representation. Only in this manner can a national consensus be determined in parliament. The added advantage of this system is that governments can in no way be involved in gerrymandering of parliamentary constituencies.

Countries using proportional representation include the well-known democracies such as Denmark, Finland, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.

Sweden has a unique system of proportional representation. Voters cast their ballots for the Riksdag (parliament), county council assembly, municipal council and European Parliament. Citizens vote for a party and may, at the same time, vote for one of the candidates listed on their voting slips.

Swedes can vote for different parties in different elections. Through this system, parties are given a number of representatives in the elected assembly that is proportional to their share of the votes received.

General elections to the Riksdag, county council assemblies and municipal councils are held every four years on the same day, while elections to the European Parliament are held every five years.

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The results of the recent British election further bolster the case for proportional representation. The breakdown of seats won by the respective political parties compared to the percentage of votes cast for each party represented a serious miscarriage of parliamentary justice to some political parties. Of the 650 seats declared:

Seats – Parties – Votes received (Share of votes)

318 – Conservatives – 13,669,883 (42.4%)
262 – Labour – 12,876,460 (40.0%)
35 – Scottish National Party 977,569 (3.0%)
12 – Liberal Democrats 2,371,910 (7.4%)
10 – Democratic Unionist Party 292,316 (0.9%)
7 – Sinn Fein 238,915 (0.7%)
4 – Plaid Cymru 164,466 (0.5%)
1 – Greens 525,435 (1.6%)
1 – Others 186,675 (0.6%)
650 – Total seats
​​If the UK had implemented proportional representation, the seats won by the respective political parties would have been vastly different.

Based on the votes obtained, the Conservatives would have got only 276 seats, the Liberal Democrats around 48 seats and the Greens around 10 seats. Only the Labour Party’s seats were closely reflected in the total votes obtained by the party. Other political parties like the SNP, Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru would have got far fewer seats than what they actually won.

A positive outcome of the recent British elections was the election of 208 women MPs or 32 per cent of the total MPs elected. Kudos to the British for the empowerment of women in their country. I wish we could emulate it here in Malaysia!

Countries that do not have a proportional electoral system cannot label themselves as authentic, functioning democracies; they are merely adhering to basic democratic tenets. Genuine democracy should reflect the voices of all segments of society, and this is only possible under the proportional electoral system.

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Implementing proportional representation in Malaysia will go a long way in making Malaysia a more inclusive society. With many allegations hurled at the government over our electoral process, a move in this direction would not only signal that we practise not only free and fair elections but also more importantly ensure that the number of parliamentary seats are in proportion to the total votes received by the various parties.

It would be a mammoth leap for our democratic values.

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