Electoral reform: Increasing the public space for democracy

The recent stoushes within all political parties and within coalitions as to the allocation of candidates for seats in Malaysia always bring to mind the opportunity for electoral reform that could widen the democratic space within the country.

The current first-past-the-post system used (most famous case is in Britain) has long been abandoned in many other countries in favour of a preferential system or a proportional system. The arguments for reform are based on the fact that:

1. With multiple cornered fights we can easily end up voting in candidates who secured far less than 50% of the vote. For example, in a 4 cornered fight, Candidate X gets in with 35% of the vote, beating Candidate Y (30%), Candidate Z (25%) and Candidate A (10%). This means that the candidate NOT preferred by 65% of the voters becomes their elected representative in parliament. If we assume a voter turn-out of 50%, then the candidate who gets in actually only got 17.5% of the support of all the eligible voters in the electorate. Not a very democratic outcome, or so the theory goes. A proportional voting system could solve this issue.

2. Let's say candidate Y and his colleagues get 30% on average in the election. In our current system, it is highly unlikely that the party and candidates voted in by 3 in 10 citizens (assuming all vote) will get any representation in parliament. The preferential system will seek to take this aberration of a 'democratic deficit' into account.

Let's look at the proportional system more closely:

Say we have 4 candidates and none got more than 50% of the vote. Then the system comes into play. Let's say we have the same story as described above:

Candidate X = 35%
Candidate Y = 30%
Candidate Z = 25%
Candidate A = 10%

Assuming that the voter has to tick every box (thus, choose candidates by ticking 1, 2, 3 and 4) each voter 'informs' the electoral commission who their first, second, third and fourth choices are. Thus the figures above refer to their first choices.

Now, Candidate A, as the receiver of the lowest first preferences is removed from the list and the ballot of the 10% of voters who chose Candidate A are re-examined to find their second preferences. After preferencing, we may have as follows:

Candidate X = 38%
Candidate Y = 35%
Candidate Z = 27%

Now Candidate Z is removed from the equation and his or hers voters' second preference is examined, plus Candidate A's third preference. Now, with only two candidates, someone is bound to pass the 50% threshold and be the elected representative of the voters. And now it is possible for Candidate Y to beat Candidate X after preferences.

Candidate X = 48%
Candidate Y = 52%

In Australia where the proportional system is used, we see a unique situation. Here, coalition partner need not squabble over seat allocations but can instead stand against each other safe in the knowledge that voters who vote for one coalition partner will preference the other. And may the best man win, as they say...

Apart from being more democratic, this could save political parties from petty squabbles.In the example above, let's say Candidate X is PKR, Y is MCA, Z is UMNO and A is an independent. In the current system the odds are stacked in favour of the PKR candidate, but in the Australian system, unless he or she can get 50%+ outright he or she is actually likely to lose because of preferencing, as I showed in my example above, where the MCA candidate wins on preferences. Indeed, this is how it largely works out in Australia.

Of course this assumes that voters will preference as suggested by the candidates. Australian evidence suggests they will but I wonder how this will work in a far more regionalist and racial Malaysia. Assume that in the example above the PKR, MCA and independent candidates are all Chinese while the UMNO candidate is not just non-Chinese but someone who has previously been seen as anti Chinese education. How sure can we be that the preferences will flow as suggested? In this case, the PKR candidate may just end up winning. While this is more democratic, it does hint at a possibility whereby coalitions may prefer not to compete against each other. A smaller coalition partner may also slowly be eaten up by the larger one by virtue of getting less first-preference votes (like the Nationals who keep losing to the Liberal Party candidates). BN will simply become UMNO for example.

Finally, what if the voters do not have to tick every box? In Australia (or Queensland anyway) the voters don't have to do tick every box in local council or state elections though they have to in the Federal election. Then, if many just tick 1 and walk away preferences are quickly exhausted and we could end up with a winning candidate getting less than 50% of the 'votes'. Never happened as far as I am aware but a theoretical possibility nevertheless.

With the preferential system, we can address the issue of whether one should vote for the candidate or the party. In this system, voters gets two votes. One for the candidate in the electorate (just like normal) and one for the party. New Zealand practices this system, and Germany another variant. Thus one can vote for a good quality candidate who represents a party one dislikes but still vote for the preferred party as well. Thus, BN supporters of Indian origin in Shah Alam will NOT vote for Zulkifli Noordin but can still vote for MIC (or BN since that is the logo used) for the party vote. If BN gets 75 seats from the party list the 75 members will be chosen from a pre-determined party list.

This system is harder to implement because it tends to dilute the power of the major parties-hence such proposals rarely pass parliament. Evidence from NZ shows that neither the Nationals nor the Labour Party have been able to form government without coalition partners since the system was introduced. The threshold for entering parliament on the party list tends to be 5%. This means not only that the marginalised can get seats in parliament (HINDRAF for example probably would get seats) but also that extreme groups could also get in (i.e. PERKASA being extreme for me, and HINDRAF extreme for others). Thus, while the marginalised tend to get a voice, so do the extremists.

So there you go. Two systems that can be considered more democratic than the current one, and worthy of attention. But will it ever come to fruition in Malaysia?


  1. sherzali asli3:44 pm

    i dont think now's the right time for the proportional system. The way i see it is we need to start with the most fundamental issue 1st that desperately needs to be reformed which is by far education. Well-informed ppl are more capable and more inclined to make smarter more practical decisions. introducing such a system now could potentially cause chaos and confusion, not because we're stupid, but because malaysians are generally not yet properly equipped to handle the proportional system. Thats where reforming our education system comes into play. The proportional system can only work in a matured and fully developed system across the board.

  2. sherzali asli6:32 pm

    oh and also ppl's votes are by and large partisan because of lack of awareness. They need to be properly educated first. hence the 1st relevant step would have to be reforming education.

  3. Improving education is a big issue as you say but I must say that even without that a reform to the system will still bring forth enough change for there to be be a more representative outcome. Of course the outcome may polarise the electorate further but if that is the democratic outcome (a la Italy recently) who are we to argue?