The Star: February 14, 2008
Malaysia conducts a general election once every four or five years, and the people will again be voting in a new government in a few weeks. Let’s take a look at what the ballot box is all about.
Winner takes all
Malaysia practises the first-past-the-post system – as in the case of a horse race, the frontrunner wins. What this means is that the candidate with the largest number of votes will win even if he receives less than 50% of the votes.
In fact, if Candidate A obtains 8,000 votes while his closest rival gets 7,995 votes and the other two 5,500 and 2,500 each, he will still be declared the winner.
This system also applies when it comes to forming the Government – the party or coalition that has the most seats or a simple majority then comes into power.
Based on the British Westminster model, it is practised in India, Canada and some other Commonwealth countries.
Despite its long history and the fact that it produces a clear winner, there are those who are unhappy with the system. Detractors point out that the winning candidate may actually have many more people voting against him than for him.
And, they also argue, the system works against the smaller parties as it does not take into account the total votes given to the “runners-up.”
Under this “winner-takes-all” system, it is possible for a party to obtain most of the seats without getting a large majority of the popular votes. For instance, Barisan Nasional won 91% of the parliamentary seats in 2004 with 64% of the popular votes.
Governing the country at the federal level involves the Parliament, comprising the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) and the 70-member Dewan Negara (Senate).
The term Member of Parliament (MP) is commonly used to refer to the members of the Dewan Rakyat, who are elected, while senators are appointed. With this coming election, there will be 222 MPs.
Traditionally, during a general election, the states in the peninsula hold elections to their state legislative assemblies together with the parliamentary election, but Sabah and Sarawak have conducted their state elections at different times. In 2004, however, Sabah also held simultaneous elections.
The size of each state legislative assembly varies according to the size of the state and its population.
Normally three state constituencies make up one parliamentary constituency, but there are also cases where a parliamentary seat has two or four state seats.
While most voters get to vote for two elected representatives, those in the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan only vote for an MP.
Apart from general elections, there is also the occasional by-election. These are held when an MP or state assemblyman dies, resigns or is disqualified from keeping his seat.
In Malaysia, a general election must be held at least once every five years.
The Prime Minister can, however, ask the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to dissolve Parliament before the five years is up.
Although a general election should be held within 60 days of the dissolution date, the period is usually much shorter.
Who is eligible to vote?
To be able to vote, a person must be 21 years old and above, a Malaysian citizen and registered as a voter with the Election Commission (EC).
But that is not enough. The EC maintains a register of voters that is revised and certified regularly and only those on the electoral roll are allowed to vote.
The electoral rolls are revised every three months and displayed in specified locations for seven days for claims and objections. During revision, the names of deceased voters and those disqualified under the law will be expunged.
Voters can check if they are on the electoral roll by going to www.spr.gov.my.
And who is eligible to contest?
Any Malaysian citizen who is not less than 21 years old and living in the country can offer himself as a candidate.
But he must also be of sound mind and must not be an undischarged bankrupt. He will also be disqualified if he has been convicted of an offence and faces certain forms of punishment.
If a person belongs to a political party, that party can nominate him as its candidate for a specified seat. Alternatively, he can stand as an independent.
Independent candidates are becoming increasingly rare, except in Sabah and Sarawak, where those who do win a seat are usually promptly invited to join an existing party.
Nomination day Following the dissolution of Parliament, the EC will announce the day for candidates to file their nomination papers.
There is one nomination centre for each parliamentary constituency. Candidates for both the parliamentary and state seats will turn up with their proposers, seconders and supporters, so expect a pretty festive air.
The papers must be submitted between 9am and 10am, and will be displayed from 10am to 11am for scrutiny and objections.
Sometimes only one candidate is nominated. In such a case, the returning officer will declare him elected without contest.
Candidates for a parliamentary seat have to put up an RM10,000 deposit and those for a state seat, one of RM5,000. This is returned after polling day, provided a candidate garners at least one-eighth of the total votes cast.
In addition, those contesting parliamentary and state seats are required to put up another RM5,000 and RM3,000 respectively. They will get this back if they remove all posters and banners within 14 days of polling.
Of campaigns and symbols
The campaign period runs between nomination day and polling day. It should be not less than seven days and has been kept short in recent years – nine days in 1999 and eight in 2004.
As a general practice, candidates and party leaders will move around a constituency meeting the people and making countless speeches.
Chances are those from the ruling party or coalition will remind voters of services rendered by incumbents and the advantages in voting for more development and continuity. Those on the other side of the political divide will tell voters why they should opt for change, or at least give the Opposition more voice.
There will also be posters, banners and buntings galore.
As usual, the publicity material will bear the candidate’s face, the symbol of his party and also the familiar dacing (weighing scale) logo if the candidate is from Barisan.
Independent candidates will use one of the symbols approved by the EC.
The big day
On polling day, voters should head for their polling centres and will allowed to enter once their identities have been confirmed. Given the numbers, a polling centre will often have several polling stations or streams, each catering for not more than 700 voters.
A person voting in simultaneous elections will be given two ballot papers, which bear the names and symbols of each candidate. Voting is secret and he should put an “X” against the name of the candidate he supports on each ballot paper.
The ballot papers should then be folded and put correctly into two separate boxes marked “PARLIMEN” and “NEGERI”. There will be just one box in areas with only parliamentary elections.
Candidates – and their supporters – have to be careful not to break certain laws under the Election Offences Act on polling day or they may be disqualified.
These include trying to pursuade people to vote for them through bribes or threats or setting up booths within 50m of the polling centres.
Calls for greater transparency in the coming general election has resulted in two new features being added into the election process – the use of indelible ink and transparent ballot boxes.
The first will involve applying the ink on the nail of the left forefinger of each voter so that no one will be able to vote more than once.
Supplied by Mysore Paints and Varnish Limited in India, the ink cannot be washed off for about a month.
Apart from India, other countries that use indelible ink to prevent election fraud include the Philippines, Indonesia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kenya and South Africa.
Polling centres nationwide will also be equipped with 50,000 transparent ballot boxes.
The locally produced boxes will replace the black metal ones used in previous elections.
Counting the votes
A candidate is allowed to appoint one agent to act for him at every polling station. The agent’s duties include making sure the ballot boxes have not been tampered with and the counting of votes is fair and correct.
When voting is over, the ballots are counted by the presiding officer at the polling station, or a specified central counting place with the agents present, and the results sent to a vote tallying centre.
There, the returning officer will add all the votes, including postal votes, and then declare the candidate who secures a simple majority the elected representative.
Forming a government
Once the results are confirmed, it is time to get down to the setting up of a new government.
At the state level, the leader of the winning party or coalition will be invited by the Sultan, Raja or Governor to be Mentri Besar or Chief Minister. He will then in turn appoint the state executive councillors.
At the Dewan Rakyat, the leader of the winning party or coalition will be invited by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to be Prime Minister. He will then in turn select the Cabinet members, deputy ministers and parliamentary secretaries from among the MPs elected.
Those not appointed to office will then become backbenchers.
Meanwhile, MPs that are not from the winning side will form the Opposition and select the Opposition Leader.
The Star: February 14, 2008