Proportional representation and its impact on Malaysia (Part 1) — Galvin Wong
JUNE 26 — Electoral reform has, for the past year or so, been a popular topic in Malaysia. Ever since Bersih 2.0 and its subsequent rally in April this year, there have been various issues such as Bersih’s eight demands that have been highlighted and trumpeted by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat and NGOs such as Bersih and Tindak Malaysia.
Any observer of Malaysian politics can tell that two issues have stood out from the many reforms that have been proposed due to their importance in the upcoming elections.
The first issue is the dirty electoral role. Much has been said about this issue and I will not comment further on it. The second issue is malapportionment. The second problem has not received as much media coverage as the first probably due to the fact that it is a long-term issue that will only be tackled after the upcoming elections. Nevertheless, it remains important and the rakyat need to be aware of its solutions.
Malapportionment refers to the uneven distribution of voters in different constituencies. It is actually quite common in countries using the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system as Khairy Jamaluddin pointed out in an ipidato.com debate. However, the reason it has become such an issue in Malaysia is because we have an exacerbated version of this problem.
There are two major ways to deal with malapportionment. The first would be for the Election Commission (EC) to conduct a delineation exercise and realign the electoral boundaries. This would definitely not completely eliminate the problem. The second would be for our country to adopt proportional representation. It is this solution that the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform has requested the EC to study in its report tabled in Parliament, and it is this solution that will be the focus of this two-part series.
This two-part series analyses what proportionate representation truly is and how it will affect Malaysia IF implemented. The first part explains the former and the second part tackles the latter.
What is proportional representation?
Proportional representation refers to representation in Parliament by a party being proportionate to the number of votes gained by it. This is the principle that drives various voting systems in which the % number of votes always translate to the % number of seats held by a political party.
The fundamental principle behind the need for proportional representation is that every political belief and agenda that has decent support from the people deserves representation in Parliament. One of the most important principles in democracy is the rule of the majority. However, this does not mean a marginalisation of minorities within a country. Instead, decisions taken by the majority must be tweaked and allowances must be made to accept the differences of minorities. And in order for that to occur, different parties advocating different agendas must first have a representation in Parliament.
Let me give an example on how this is lacking in Malaysia. Malaysia has, in recent years, moved to a much more established two-coalition system. Although member parties of Pakatan Rakyat such as PAS and the DAP still have differing views on certain issues, but on key policies such as those outlined in Buku Jingga they are in agreement. Barisan Nasional (BN), on the other hand, has been a coalition for much longer and its views on issues are very much aligned. Now this means that in the Dewan Rakyat, arguably the only chamber in Parliament that matters, there are ONLY two different coalitions offering two views! Surely, a country as diverse as ours in terms of race, religion, culture and socio-economic status cannot have just two different viewpoints!
Proportional representation would ensure that other viewpoints and other parties are better represented.
Australia: A case study
As has been mentioned earlier, various voting systems around the world use the principle of proportional representation. Some of the differences between these systems are slight and some are hugely significant. In this article I would give a brief description of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system used to elect the Australian Senate. I chose Australia simply because it is considered a mature democracy and this system has been used since 1949 without a problem arising.
The Australian Senate, much unlike our Dewan Negara, is democratically elected and holds considerable if not equal power compared to the House of Representatives (Malaysia’s Dewan Rakyat). In the proportional voting system, the entire country is divided into eight electorates which consist of the six Australian states and the two federal territories. These electorates are multi-member electorates and there are no smaller constituencies within each electorate. Each state elects six senators at one go.
A winning candidate must secure a quota of the total percentage of votes. Because of the extremely long list of candidates (bear in mind that with six senators being elected, the total of just the candidates from the two major parties alone would come to 12 candidates), voters can either number their candidates “1”, “2”, “3” and so on, or they can choose the Group Voting Ticket, whereby voters can indicate that they vote for a pre-determined group of candidates. The order of preferences is in accordance with a ticket registered by the respective parties or groups with the Australian Electoral Commission. Again, we see a fundamental difference between the FPTP and this STV system. In the FPTP system, an individual is just needed to place just one cross mark next to the candidate he chooses to support.
The votes are then distributed according to their first preference (the candidates that have been numbered “1” by a voter). If a candidate gains the quota needed, he is automatically elected. The surplus votes of the elected candidates (votes in excess of the quota they needed) are transferred to the candidates who were the second choice of voters. However, they are transferred as a reduced value. Because it is not possible to determine which votes actually elected the candidate and which votes are surplus all the elected candidate’s ballot papers are transferred at the reduced value other candidates may be elected by this process of transferring surplus votes.
If, however, all surplus votes from elected candidates are transferred and there are still some unfilled positions, normal distribution of preferences now takes place. Starting with the lowest scoring candidate, unelected candidates are excluded from the count and their ballot papers are distributed to the remaining candidates at full value. This process continues until all Senate positions are filled.
On the first go, the process would seem extremely complex. However, once one grasps the key points, everything falls into place. Now that we have gotten the draggy part away, Part 2 will definitely be a tad more enjoyable and will involve analysing the pros and the cons of proportional representation. —letstalkpoliticsmalaysia.blogspot.com
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.