Redeeming Malaysian elections

By Lim Hong Hai

Malaysia has held regular elections since independence. This is no mean achievement.

But elections not only have to be regularly held. They also have to be “free and fair” if they are to effectively structure and civilize political contestation and to confer legitimacy on government by the victorious party.

Malaysian elections have been largely free, in the sense that voters generally feel free to cast their vote for a candidate or party of their choice. The 2008 election will see the removal of voters’ serial number from the counterfoil of the ballot paper. This should remove doubts about the confidentiality of the ballot.

The problem with Malaysian elections is that fairness has become a burning issue, as evidenced by the recent coalescence of all major opposition parties and some civil society groups in demonstrating for electoral reform.

The process of polling and counting votes, even remaining inaccuracies in the electoral roll, are not the major source of unfairness. Stuffing ballot boxes has never been a Malaysian disease. Continuing efforts by the Election Commission (EC) will reduce problems in postal voting and the electoral roll. And only more care by the EC is needed to prevent administrative glitches on polling day.

So what are the sources of unfairness that have largely fuelled calls for electoral reform? These occur at two stages that are useful to identify: competing for votes and translating votes obtained into seats won.

In competing for the support of voters, opposition parties face a number of disadvantages that are justifiably deemed unfair. The EC has responded to the opposition complaint of an inadequate campaign period by extending it somewhat for this 2008 election, but the following main inequalities remain. Police permits required for organized campaign meetings are not always fairly given to opposition parties. The incumbent BN uses government resources (personnel, facilities, and money in the form of projects and allocations) in campaigning and providing inducements to voters. The government-controlled mass media do not give fair coverage to opposition parties. Inadequate legal controls on electoral expenditure and their inadequate enforcement favour the better-funded BN. Clearly, redressing these sources of unfairness depends not only on the EC, but also on the government and its agencies.

What finally count in elections are not votes but seats. How votes obtained are translated into seats for contesting parties depends on the electoral system. Proportional representation or PR electoral systems award seats to political parties in proportion to their respective shares of the total vote. The first-past-the-post electoral system, which Malaysia uses, does not produce this proportionality in the distribution of seats. It always awards the party with the most votes with a greater proportion of seats than its proportion of votes, or a bonus of additional seats over and above its proportional share.

In Malaysia, this non-proportional distribution of seats has always benefited the BN (and its predecessor the Alliance) at the federal level. At the state level, it has benefited mainly the BN, but also Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), and PAS in Kelantan and Terengganu in several elections.

The opposition parties have not seriously complained against the first-past-the-post electoral system per se, or its inherent non-proportional distribution of seats relative to votes. What they have seriously complained against is the use – or abuse – of the system to further increase the non-proportionality of seats to the advantage of the BN and to the disadvantage of its opponents. This has been done in the delimitation of electoral constituencies through mal-apportionment and gerrymandering.

Drawing the lines
Mal-apportionment refers to constituencies of unequal size or numbers of voters, so that votes are of unequal value between constituencies. If a constituency of 20,000 voters and another of 40,000 voters elect one representative each, the value of the vote in the larger constituency is in effect only half the value of the vote in the smaller constituency. This is the same as giving each voter in the smaller constituency two votes compared to one vote for each voter in the larger constituency.

In Malaysia, mal-apportionment favours rural areas, so that the largely non-bumiputra urban votes are of lower value than the largely bumiputra rural votes. Urban constituencies are therefore larger and fewer compared to rural constituencies. For parliamentary constituencies, urban ones are often larger than rural ones by more than three times in Peninsular Malaysia and by more than four times in West Malaysia.

This mal-apportionment limits the number of seats that could be won by the urban-based non-bumiputra opposition. Non-bumiputra parties in the BN are also affected by the devaluation of the urban vote, but they are compensated in other ways. Chinese and Indian BN parties are allocated constituencies in close proportion to the share of Chinese and Indian voters in the electorate. As the large urban constituencies are fewer in number, many of their allocated constituencies lie outside the urban centres and contain a large proportion or even a majority of bumiputra voters. These are the constituencies that provide so-called safe seats for many top Chinese and Indian BN leaders. The reader may recall the public questioning some months ago by some MCA leaders as to whether these safe seats are not also ‘shame’ seats.

Gerrymandering is the drawing of constituency boundaries for partisan advantage. This can be done in two ways. The first is to crowd as many opposition voters as possible into a limited number of constituencies so that the opposition will win these limited seats by more votes than are necessary. The second is to distribute as many opposition voters as possible but keep them as a minority in the remaining constituencies. The “more than necessary” votes in the former and the “inadequate for victory” votes in the latter can be said to be “wasted.” Thus the essential purpose of gerrymandering is to waste as many opposition votes as possible. Gerrymandering can be done with or without mal-apportionment.

Students of Malaysian politics have observed the combined use of these methods in carving out Malay-majority constituencies in urban centres since the first re-delimitation in 1974. Those who study politics in West Malaysia have noted the probable use of gerrymandering for containing “Dayakism” in Sarawak and for undoing the PBS in Sabah. After the serious challenge by PAS to Umno in the 1999 election, PAS became the target of gerrymandering in the 2003 re-delimitation. When Parliament passed the revised constituencies in April 2003, PAS and Parti Keadilan Nasional (now merged with Parti Rakyat Malaysia as Parti Keadilan Rakyat or PKR) joined the DAP in a joint opposition walkout.

The government amended the constitution in 1962 to give itself the power of approving re-delimited constituencies. However, the task of re-delimiting electoral constituencies at periodic intervals remains with the EC. And in this task the EC has wide discretion, thanks to constitutional amendments in 1962, 1973 and 1984. The trend of re-delimiting constituencies to the advantage of the ruling party is an important reason for the growing doubts about the impartiality and independence of the EC and about the fairness of elections.

Increasing complaints of unfairness can discredit elections, reduce the legitimacy of government, and increase resort to more disorderly forms of political expression. To prevent these serious consequences, we urgently need to restore the integrity of elections. We need to merawat (treat) and membersih (clean up) the sources of unfairness in campaigning and constituency delimitation.

All this can be done without abandoning the first-past-the-post electoral system for some form of PR, even though it is true that PR would very largely remove the scope for abusing constituency delimitation for partisan advantage. Donald Horowitz, a noted scholar, has reminded us that the first-past-the-post electoral system has an important beneficial effect that PR would probably not have in the Malaysian plural context. In many constituencies, candidates or political parties need support from all ethnic groups in order to win and this discourages them from making extremist appeals to a single ethnic group. This pooling of votes from all ethnic groups is especially important for overall victory, whether at the federal or state level. By encouraging vote-pooling, the first-past-the-post electoral system significantly helps to moderate ethnic conflict in the country. This is strong reason to keep the first-past-the-post electoral system. But we also need to end its abuse and to operate it fairly.

Restoring the integrity of elections has wider implications. The present system of elections buffers the government from any serious opposition threat and thus fails to push the government to greater efforts in fighting corruption and improving the performance of the bureaucracy, police and judiciary. Fairer elections would increase pressure on the government to do more to overcome these governance deficits that affect our quality of life and national competitiveness. Reducing the devaluation of urban votes by means of fairer constituency delimitation would increase the political efficacy of non-bumiputra minorities whose share of the population is already declining. This in turn would improve government responsiveness to these minorities, stem their growing sense of insecurity, and reduce their brain drain out of the country.

Increased pressure on the BN government is also precisely the reason for its reluctance to make elections fairer. Under fairer elections, the BN would continue to rule at the federal level and in most states. This is because it is by far the strongest party in the country. But it has to govern better in order to maintain its present dominant position. It would probably lose some seats, with the number depending on its performance in government. But with its present huge majority, the BN can surely afford to lose some seats. As for the country, it can ill-afford not to have fairer elections.

Dr Lim Hong Hai teaches political science and public administration at the School of Social Sciences in Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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