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Direct democracy options for Malaysia: Referendums and recall elections

These could help overcome the various weaknesses of representative democracy we have seen since 2018

Photograph: Benedict Lopez

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In 2004, highly divided and hyper-partisan Venezuela held a recall referendum on whether to sack or keep its charismatic leader, Hugo Chavez.

In this South American nation, all offices elected by popular vote are subject to revocation through a recall mechanism. The country is unique in applying this mechanism widely, not sparing even then-President Chavez. The opposition in Venezuela collected signatures in 2003, but the process of validation of signatures was marked with controversy.

In 2004, the election management body of Venezuela (CNE) certified that the opposition had collected enough signatures to trigger a recall vote. The question posed to voters was whether they agreed to revoke Chavez’s term as president. With a turnout of 70%, 58% of the voters voted to keep Chavez and the rest opted to sack him. Chavez survived the recall attempt.

In Asia, we have seen a similar example of recall elections carried out in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where voters chose to sack the mayor in 2020.

Both instances are fine examples of direct democracy in action within a representative democracy.

In this article, we at Tindak Malaysia would like to explain what direct democracy options could be considered for Malaysia.

In simpler terms, direct democracy is a form of democracy that enables citizens to participate in and decide for themselves on specific matters or policies. It is different from representative democracy, where the citizens vote for an elected representative to enact policies for the people who voted for them.

The post-2018 general election era in Malaysia has revealed various weaknesses of representative democracy. Most voters in Malaysia now realise they do not have much control over the politicians, and this can create disillusionment and apathy.

Meanwhile, we can see groups like Bersih calling for initiatives like recall elections to address the unending problems of party defections.

With all this in mind, Tindak Malaysia will briefly explore three mechanisms of direct democracy: referendums, recall elections and participatory budgeting.

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A referendum is a vote in which all the people in a country or an area are asked to give their opinion about or decide an important political or social matter.

Referendums on key matters like distribution of oil revenues among regions in Malaysia or questions on reinstating local council elections would be better ascertained by the public compared to divided opinions in political party rooms.

There are a few types of referendums that Tindak Malaysia advocates: mandatory and optional versions.

Mandatory referendums should cover certain topics such as admission of new territories to Malaysia and significant amendments to specific articles of the Federal Constitution. Citizens ought to vote when faced with proposals for such drastic changes.

Optional referendums are not legally required to be carried out but they may be initiated by the government, members of the legislature or a number of citizens.

For example, we may want to consider holding a referendum to reinstate local council elections as our politicians from both sides have not yet delivered on this. Any citizen of the federation aged 18 and above may launch a referendum on local council elections.

Subsequently, this call ought to be backed by the signatures of 10% of registered voters in the federation. Such a call shall be formulated as a general proposal or specific draft (ie amending part of the Constitution).

This call is submitted to the voters. If 50%-plus-one of registered voters participating in the referendum approve the reinstatement of local council elections, Parliament shall initiate the draft legislation for approval. The outcome of the referendum should be binding unless 75% of parliamentarians vote against the outcome.

Referendums can re-engage the citizens in the framework of representative democracy and solve deep divisions within the incumbent government in carrying or not carrying out certain legislations.

While referendums can be expensive and require a higher level of awareness of voters on key issues, the benefits of referendums outweigh our current inability to influence the direction of the country.

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If referendums are adopted in Malaysia, it will require amendments to our Federal Constitution.

Recall elections

A recall election is a mechanism which allows voters to end the term of an elected representative if they are able to meet the requirement to initiate a recall vote.

There are three major considerations of recall elections: the requirement for a recall, holding the recall vote, and choosing the successor when an elected leader is sacked.

In Malaysia, a recall mechanism should be applied to elected representatives at the state (the state legislative assemblies) and federal level (including the prime minister).

There are two ways to view the grounds for recall elections: unrestricted or restricted.

Unrestricted recall elections facilitate voters in removing remove underperforming or unpopular politicians in mid-term.

Restricted recall elections impose certain triggering conditions such as party defections, serious malfeasance or a failure to carry out manifesto promises.

As recall elections hinge on the will of the voters, the main strength of unrestricted recall elections is their flexibility. Unrestricted recall elections can handle the wide spectrum of party defections and the performance of politicians.

In Malaysia, we propose that recall elections be activated no earlier than one year of the official term and no less than one year of the automatic dissolution of Parliament or the state legislative assembly.

We propose the following steps:

  • A recall election is to be initiated by a voter together with signatures of at least 1% of the voters of the constituency. The recall should bear a specific proposal such as “Shall [title and name of elected representative, the name of constituency he or she represents] be recalled (removed) from the Dewan Rakyat/State Legislative Assembly?”
  • Signatures should only be collected once the proposed initiative for recall is successfully filed with the Election Commission. Four months is given to collect signatures
  • All signatures must be verified prior to the start of recall vote
  • The recall vote will be only called should there be a verified signature collection of 10% of registered voters of the constituency (registered at the time of initiation of the petition) before the recall takes place 
  • The process of a recall vote and nominating the successor should be separate. The recall vote is to be initiated within 60 days after the preconditions for the recall vote are met
  • The incumbent is removed if a majority of the registered voters who participate in the recall vote to sack the incumbent.
  • Once the incumbent is removed, the Speaker of the House or state legislative assembly shall notify the Election Commission of the vacancy. A by-election is triggered
  • The defeated incumbent should be given the right to contest in the by election
  • To prevent abuses should the recall election fail to remove the incumbent, another recall process should not be initiated against the incumbent within that a specific period[D1]  (say, the next 12 months)
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The above process can be fine-tuned to reduce its deficiencies.

Recall elections are expensive mechanisms and prone to abuse (from signature collection to the intent of recall). However, adjusting thresholds for initial signature collection and recall vote, together with clear rules on signature collection, can mitigate the impact of misuse.

We, Tindak Malaysia, argue that the benefits of recall elections outweigh their disadvantages. The flexibility of recall elections cannot be underestimated.

Similar to referendums, instituting recall elections will require amendments to our Federal Constitution.

NEXT: The third direct democracy option – participatory budgeting, which does not require a constitutional amendment

Danesh Prakash Chacko is Tindak Malaysia’s director and research analyst at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development (Sunway University)

Fork Yow Leong is an activist with Tindak Malaysia and specialises in law

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