Change polls system, not just processes

Maria Chin Abdullah (gambar ihsan Ng Hock Cheng)
Maria Chin Abdullah (gambar ihsan Ng Hock Cheng)


By Maria Chin Abdullah, BERSIH 2.0 chairperson

At the lecture organised by Bersih 2.0, Society for the Promotion of Human Rights, Malaysia (Proham) and Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (KLSCAH) last Sunday, University of Glasgow’s Prof Sarah Birch, an international leading expert on electoral malpractice, one common question struck many members of the audience – is it time now to change the electoral system and not just the electoral process?

The comparison in the electoral systems brought up by Prof Birch was interesting and one which has been of interest, too, for our Malaysian academicians. So how do we decide which system is appropriate for Malaysia?

Prof Pippa Noris, a renowned political scientist at Harvard and University of Sydney, hit the nail on the head on the question of electoral system. For her, the underlying and fundamental issue of an electoral system is how people view, perceive and value representative democracy.

Translating that, for me, representative democracy really means:

  • Whether the voters’ expressed interests can be represented by candidates whom they vote for;
  • Whether the elected government will represent and respond to voters’ interests;
  • Whether the elected governments and representatives will be transparent in formulation and execution of laws and policies and also be accountable to voters.

In Malaysia our elections do not seem to guarantee these principles – period. While there are many other factors preventing effective people’s access to representative democracy, such as lack of access to the media, poor performance and partial Election Commission (EC), political violence and so forth, one of the key barriers is our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system.

I, for one, am not a supporter of the FPTP system that is practiced in Malaysia due to the many perils that it holds for voters. For more than 50 years under a one-party state, voters have suffered and silently tolerated distortion of results through gerrymandering and malapportionment.

In the 13th general election (GE13), this even resulted in a government elected on minority votes, forcing the majority of voters into accepting a party they do not support.

There are many alternatives to the FPTP that Malaysia may consider for its system. For example, some Malaysian academicians do advocate modelling on Australia’s preferential voting system.

In this system, voters are asked to rank all candidates. If no candidate wins a simple majority in the voters’ first preference, the candidate at the bottom will be winnowed out and her/his votes will be re-allocated to all other voters based on their second preference. The process will continue until a candidate garner 50 percent of support.

Winner enjoys full legitimacy

Its first and foremost advantage is telling. The winner will enjoy full legitimacy as s/he will always have more voters supporting her than those opposing her. Under this system, there will not be minority winners in multi-corner fights like that in the Kota Damansara state seat in 2013. Then, an Umno candidate was elected despite his two opponents – PSM and PAS – when combined won more votes than him.

Other countries like South Africa, and New Zealand took bold steps to reform their electoral systems. Post-Apartheid South Africa chose to do away the FPTP system.

The African National Congress (ANC) was aware of the FPTP system’s ‘winner-takes-all’ nature, which would immediately cause controversies in constituency delineation and in the long run destabilises the country which already has a deep ethnic divide. The ANC opted for the list proportional representation (LPR) system with the motivation to bring about greater democratic governance and more inclusive representation.

Meanwhile, New Zealand changed its FPTP system to a hybrid system called mixed member proportional (MMP) after two FPTP elections in 1978 and 1981 which respectively produced minority governments in vote share, just like Malaysia in 2013.

Interestingly enough, the National Party, which benefited from the system, eventually promised a referendum on whether the electoral system should be changed. Eventually it led to the adoption of the MMP.

Originating from Germany, New Zealand’s MMP system has 50 percent parliamentarians elected through FPTP constituencies and another 50 percent through party lists in LPR elections.

Voters are given two votes – one for the FPTP candidate in the geographical constituency and one for the party. The party vote will decide the total number of seats won by the parties. After deducting the number of FPTP seats won, the parties will be given the remaining numbers of seats, which will be filled up from the party list candidates based on their sequence on the lists.

Both LPR and MMP promote proportionality between votes and seats and can therefore reduce over-dominance of a one-party system. As there will be more parties represented in the Parliament and post-election coalition government is commonplace, hence, this gives more room for collaboration, negotiation and sharing of power.

These proportional representation systems force parties and elected representatives to be more accountable and responsive to their voters in term of ideologies and policy platforms, rather than having candidates cultivating personal support through patronage.

This in turn can result in substantive representation in formulation of laws and policies. Not just inside the legislatures, but legislation can be more participatory when voters, too, can have more say through their parties.

No political will to change

Whichever the system we may favour, the point here is that in Malaysia we rarely debate on what is an appropriate electoral system. There is simply no political will to change and to improve by adopting better systems.

Maintaining the FPTP system for the present administration is advantageous as they may win power even after losing votes, as shown in GE13. And the people stand to lose if they cannot easily sack governments and politicians to make them work hard.

It’s time we go beyond the technical questions of electoral processes and start the debate on what electoral system we want.


This article was originally published by Malaysiakini in the Column section on 16 July 2014.