To reform or not to reform

BASED on the GE14 result, there are 77 MP seats in Peninsular Malaysia and 13 MP seats in Sabah and Sarawak that did not return a majority winner.


Let’s take the Jerlun parliamentary seat won by Parti Pribumi Bersatu deputy president Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir as an example.

Mukhriz got 18,695 votes, Abdul Ghani Ahmad of PAS 12,829 votes and Othman Aziz 12,413. He won the seat with a 5,866 majority.

Mukhriz won because of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system which we inherited from our colonial master, the British. He was the first to past the post.

The MPs in the 90 parliamentary seats did not win with a majority as they had more opponents than supporters.

In the 77 seats which the MP did not win a majority in Peninsular Malaysia, Barisan Nasional won 38, Pakatan 30 and PAS nine. If the Umno and PAS votes were combined, Pakatan would have lost 30 MP seats.

“FPTP’s message to these MPs’ opponents is ‘unite if you don’t want to lose’. As Pakatan won 30 of these seats because Umno and PAS were split, Umno and PAS should now get united and close old ranks,” said Wong Chin Huat, a senior fellow at Jeffery Sachs Center on Sustainable Development, Sunway University.

“Umno and PAS need to whip up the sense of insecurity among the Malays and make the non-Malays the bogeyman. This is not good for the country,”

What Wong was saying was that to win Jerlun in GE15, Umno and PAS needed to unite – form an electoral pact – and field one candidate against Mukhriz to win the seat. He also contended that Umno and PAS would be using anti-Malay rhetoric to win the voters.

If our electoral system were under MMP (member proportional system), Wong argued, the situation would not appear.

He’s a fan of Germany’s MMP. To incentivise political parties in Malaysia towards becoming more moderate, he said, the country should move the electoral system away from the “winner takes all” system. In MMP, voters are given two ballots – one for their single-member constituency representative (exactly like our FPTP) and one for their desired party in a larger multi-member constituency (closed list PR).

“While the same problem may happen in the FPTP, most of the losers will still get representation through party list where seats are allocated proportionately based on percentages of party votes. Hence, parties do not feel compelled to form a bloc to block their common enemies,” he said.

On Thursday, Wong and University of Western Australia’s political science professor Ben Reilly, who is an internationally renowned electoral system expert, spoke to journalists about the alternative electoral system.

“With the MMP system, how would the general election result be different?” I asked Wong.

He said we need to look at two scenarios of GE15 using its voting pattering: 1) replaying GE14 under MMP, and 2) replaying GE14 under FPTP with Umno and PAS becoming a bloc (the very likely reality in GE15). MMP, he said will produce highly proportional results like simple List-PR so that we can use the latter as a substitute.

“Next, we assume that List-PR constituencies would be the states and territories. Taking into account of disproportional allocation of parliamentary seats, PH will fall short of 112 by a few seats, Barisan will get about the same while PAS would increase its seats to around 35,” he said.

“On the surface, one would assume BN and PAS will form a coalition government, but looking at how East Malaysian parties ditched Umno and resisted PAS, the hung Parliament will likely lead to the breakup of BN and a PH-led coalition with East Malaysian parties.”

In the second scenario, Wong said assuming Umno and PAS can keep and converge their votes for common candidates, they will add 30 MP seats (won if Umno and PAS fielded a single candidate) to 46 (Umno) + 18 (PAS) = 94, exactly a bare majority in West Malaysia’s 165 seats. This means the next government will also be a post-coalition government.

“In both scenarios, there will be post-election governments. The main difference is whether Umno and PAS will form a pact.”

Wong contends that Malaysia needs to change the FPTP electoral system because of four major problems which contribute to instability – as a result of its mismatch with ethnic division in society.

1) It punishes losers heavily that every ethnic community craves communal unity and dreads division.

2) It suppresses non-communal divides like class and environment-v-development, making ethnic and religious divisions always salient in society.

3) by often weakening the opposition too much, it takes away the prospect of winning power and leads them to prioritise segmental popularity over governance and take hardline/populist positions on communal issues. (Umno and PAS now playing ethno-religious issues is a telling example).

4) It does not allow coalition members to compete because constituencies are allocated on a near permanent basis and paradoxically induces the ruling coalition into implosion when it wins too much and does not have a formidable enemy to stay united.

Wong proposed for a mixed member proportional (MMP)

system as can provide the solution for the four problems:

1) Ethno-religious communities can feel comfortable to split their support across a few parties.

2) Non-communal issues and parties like class inequality and environment will gain representation in legislatures and hence reduce the relevance of 3R.

3) The prospect of joining post-election governments may induce parties to be moderate.

4) Coalition partners can cooperate for FPTP as they do but at the same time compete for party votes. This preserves the existing coalition like PH and GPS for now but prepares them for a more open pattern of coalition building in the wrong run.

I asked Wong, who is a member of the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC), whether the ERC, Election Commission and political parties are ready for a change in the electoral system.

ERC, he said, had organised town hall meetings in states but consultations with major parties have yet to take place.

“Most people believe that it would be difficult because of the need for a constitutional amendment. But that is really ‘technical’ and can be overcome with cross-party consensus,” he said.

Wong said cross-party consensus, in turn, hinges on two issues:

A) are most parties feeling uncertain of their luck in GE15 and therefore prefer to hedge their risks (going for PR or propositional representation) instead of continuing to gamble (keeping FPTP)

B) and will Malay-Muslims prefer to keep multiparty competition at a lower cost (switching to PR) or to go for communal unity to minimise the cost of political division (keeping FPTP)?

Reilly, however, pointed out that electoral reform is usually difficult to push through.

“This is because the government of the day is usually reluctant to change the electoral system under which they won previously,” he said.

“Are Malaysians sophisticated enough for a new electoral system since we are still stuck with issues such as 3Rs – religion, race and royalty?” I asked Wong.

“Most people tend to misunderstand the causality in communal politics. The salience of 3Rs is very much the consequence of our failure to have non-communal divides and parties. So, the question is not whether we are sophisticated enough to adopt a new electoral system, but rather whether we want to adopt a new electoral system to be more sophisticated,” he said.

Anyone for the MMP electoral system?

Source: The Star Online, written by Philip Golingai.
Comments by Dr Wong Chin Huat were made at the JCI Forum: Can Electoral Systems Encourage Politics of Moderation? 

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