Hedging against a bigger tsunami

The Sun
Wong Chin Huat

PETALING JAYA (March 18, 2008): Merely 56,822 votes – that’s how close Barisan Nasional (BN) came to losing its federal power in the wake of March 8’s electoral tsunami. BN led DAP with 51 votes in Sarikei (Sarawak), its weakest link. In its 30th weakest seat, Stampin (also Sarawak), BN’s winning margin was only 3,070 votes.
In between them were nine seats from Perak, three each from Pahang and Sabah, two each from Selangor, Kedah and Terengganu, one each from Johor, Malacca, Perlis and Putrajaya, as well as two more from Sarawak (see table 1).
The average margin for all these 30 seats was only 1,893 votes. It, therefore, takes only 1,894 votes in average to upset BN.
With the exception of Putrajaya and Hulu Rajang, the margin constitutes less than 15% of total valid votes.
This means it takes only one extra vote for every seven votes cast in the constituencies to return 28 other opposition parliamentarians and leave BN with two-seat advantage in the Parliament.
Measured in proportion of valid votes, the thinness of BN’s margin was equally shocking. It was lower than 20% in 57 seats, and less than 10% in 25 of them.
In other words, if 5% of the voters across all constituencies changed their minds from voting BN, the coalition will be left with a wafer-thin majority of 115 against the Oppposition’s 107.
However, had 10% of the voters done so, the government would be stronger with only nine seats short of a two-thirds majority. It would, however, be 139 seats for the new government of PKR, DAP, PAS and others against BN’s 83 seats, almost the exact opposite of what we have now.
How would you characterise the political change then? A mega tsunami? A comet or asteroid’s strike that may send some species into extinction?
Tsunami may be a good metaphor to visualise the scale and unexpectedness of the electoral shock. It, however, may mislead us to think that such volatility is externally-determined.
Far from that, while architecture may have little impact to arrest or moderate the impact of nature’s tidal waves, the electoral tsunami is to a large extent a product of the electoral system.
Take the Penang state legislative elections as an example. Most were shocked that BN not only lost the state government, but also the non-Malay parties were wiped out. Even the outgoing chief minister and all three of his possible successors met their Waterloo.
The electoral volatility was certainly remarkable that BN’s vote share fell by 22% from 63% to 41% while DAP’s fortune rose by 21% to 35%.
But, would you be so shocked if Umno retained seven seats, Gerakan five, MCA four and MIC two, giving BN a total of 17 seats instead of the actual 11?
That would be the outcome if the election was conducted under party-list electoral system employing the most proportionate features (see Table 2). In such system, the portion of seats held by a party is roughly equivalent to its popular vote share.
In fact, if such system was used in 2004, the shock would be further smaller: BN seats would drop only by nine from 26 to 17 with Umno losing two seats, Gerakan four, MCA three while MIC keeping its sole seat.
The example of Penang illustrates how electoral volatility of 22.2% was amplified into a political earthquake of 67.5% as BN’s seats plunged from 38 seats (95%) to 11 seats (27.5%) under our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system.
Penang in 2008 was not the first political tsunami facilitated by the electoral system. Similar swings in Kelantan in 1990 and in Terengganu in 1999 saw the literal or virtual extermination of BN in these two states.
Penang in 2008 will not be the last one. The next national elections may see greater volatility which will be further amplified by the FPTP system. The triumphant opposition today may fall lower than they did in 2004.
Equally possible is that the nationally, BN will suffer the fate of its Penang branch in 2008. The slim majority in this election shows that if the luck is not with BN, we may see a new coalition government with some 70% to 80% of parliamentary seats.
If today we lament the arrogance and unaccountability bred by BN’s parliamentary two-thirds before 2008, we must be equally worried for the similar scenario with any new government.
First-past-the-post systems are like gambles. When you win, you win big. That’s why it is favoured by the winners or winner-wannabes. But of course, when you lose, you lose big too.
Proportional electoral system – and other features of a fairer political system – is therefore valuable for multi-ethnic societies for one simple reason. Like an insurance policy, it keeps people from desperation.
While it removes undeserved windfalls – like the insurance premium – for potential winners, it also hedges against disastrous tsunamis for potential losers.
For no one will be excluded unexpectedly and unacceptably, no one needs to resort to extreme measures. Any major policy change will need extensive consultation to obtain cross-party support.
Is that not the real political stability all Malaysians and foreign investors need?
Electoral reform is often dismissed as the cause of the idealist and the naïve. Make no mistake. It is now the cause of real pragmatists.
There is one lesson everyone – especially those in power – must learn from this tsunami. Buy your insurance before the next tsunami strikes.
Wong Chin Huat is a journalism lecturer in the Arts Discipline of the School of Arts and Sciences, Monash University, Sunway campus (Malaysia). He is completing his PhD in University of Essex on electoral system and party politics in West Malaysia, 1982-2004. He is currently co-editing a book on Malaysia’s 2004 elections.