Proportional representation and its impact on Malaysia (Part 2) — Galvin Wong
JUNE 29 — In the first part of the analysis, we covered what proportional representation (PR) is using the example of Australia. In this subsequent and final part, we focus on the implications on Malaysia IF a voting system that uses the proportional representation principle is ever adopted.
We dive straight into this article’s agenda and look at the benefits a proportional representation system will provide. There are arguably two immensely important advantages proportional representation has over the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.
Pros: Eliminating malapportionment
The first advantage is the elimination of malapportionment. Using our current FPTP system, malapportionment has become a rampant problem. Setting up electoral constituencies has always been a problem in Malaysia. This is due to the vast difference in population between constituencies especially in rural and urban areas. This problem results in rural votes becoming much more valuable than an urban vote, thus violating one of the major principles in a democracy — the one-vote-one-value principle. A principle that emphasises that every citizen’s vote is of equal worth. In an IDEAS publication recently, there was a comparison between the Kapar constituency which has 112,224 voters and the Putrajaya constituency which has 6,008 voters. This simply means that every vote in Putrajaya is worth almost 17 votes in Kapar!
The moment proportional representation is implemented, the problem of malapportionment is reduced. To explain it in laymen’s terms, in a FPTP system, the difference between voters within a constituency also results in candidates requiring different number of votes needed to win. A contestant in a rural constituency with a lesser number of voters would require a lesser number of votes to win a seat compared to an urban constituency which has a substantially larger number of voters. On the other hand, the candidates in Australia under the PR system are required to achieve a similar percentage of votes before being elected. This ensures the value of most votes is similar and the one-vote-one-value principle is achieved. However, note the use of the word reduced and not completely eliminated. This is because the problem still exists although in much smaller proportions.
Including the views of minorities
Secondly, we take a look at how a PR system allows many more parties with legitimate views on certain issues and decent support by the public to be represented in Parliament. The problem with minority parties not only in Malaysia but in the rest of the world is that they often do have enough support throughout the country to win at least one or two seats in Parliament. The problem is this support is thinly dispersed throughout the entire country. For a FPTP system, because of much smaller constituencies, a candidate from a minority party will never be able to get enough support to win a seat.
A PR system has a much larger electorate, and this would give a better chance to any minority party candidate due to the combined support of its voters throughout. Although such an advantage may not be so applicable in Malaysia at this point of time. However, the more mature our democracy becomes, and the more information is able to filter through to the public, more issues will be represented by these parties. One issue would be the environment. KITA, a small party led by Zaid Ibrahim, is a clear example of a minority party that will benefit from a PR system as it is a third alternative for voters who do not want to vote Pakatan Rakyat or Barisan Nasional.
Cons: People’s interest vs party’s interest
We are human and we are flawed. In the same way, no man-made system is perfect. A PR voting system also has its share of disadvantages, some more major than the rest. We take a look at two of its major weaknesses.
In the FPTP system, there exists a direct link between MPs and his/her constituents that have elected him/her into Parliament. This link is one of accountability and also representation. An MP’s role is clear, that is to represent the interests of his/her constituents in Parliament. Because a constituency is much smaller, constituents know who the MP is and what he/her stands for. And during elections, it is arguable that they not only vote for the party he is in, but also choose him/her and his/her stands personally. Ong Kee Teat is a good example of this, although BN lost all the state constituencies in the parliamentary seat of Pandan, he still went on to win that parliamentary seat by an extremely wide margin, proving that it was his personal popularity and views that the voters wanted.
The problem with the PR system is that there is no such link. Not only that, MPs who are elected into Parliament are supposed to represent those who voted for them. The question is if a PR system is used, who do these MPs represent? After all, there are no constituencies. How do these MPs go to the ground and know how voters feel about these issues? The entire electorate is massive. Surely, they cannot cover so much ground due to their limited schedules. And if our MPs are already struggling to represent the differing views within their smaller constituencies, would they not struggle with an even larger electorate?
Besides that, because of the large electorate, large number of voters have no idea who the candidates are and vote based on party lines. The combination of these factors make it extremely difficult if not nearly impossible for MPs to vote in Parliament based on the interest of the people. Thus, they have to fall back on the views and interests of the party. This is good if the issues discussed and voted on were in a party’s manifesto. The question arises when there are issues that were not listed in the manifesto. What if the both party’s views are not in line with a substantial group of voters. Who would represent these voters?
Balance of power held by minority parties?
Another popular argument that detractors of the PR system use is that the PR system may create a situation where the ruling party and the opposition may win close to equal seats. As a result, the balance of power is held by minorities whose support can give either party a majority in Parliament. This is extremely undemocratic as the majority (ruling party and opposition) is held to ransom by the minority. There is some truth in this argument. In Australia, Kevin Rudd’s Labour government needed votes from the Green Party, Family First party and an independent senator to pass Bills in the Australian Senate.
There are two sides to a coin, and one can view the balance of power in a positive light as well. The fact that these minorities hold the balance of power means that major parties especially the ruling party are forced to allow them input into laws and policies. This would ensure that the laws and policies formed are of consensus and they take into account not merely the views of the majority but those of the minority as well, making this process much much more democratic.
Besides that, it would make more sense for a minority party to side with the ruling government as well. After all, although both the ruling party and the opposition would want to work with minority parties, it is the ruling government who forms laws and policies and it would be more constructive and beneficial for these parties to use their influence to input into these policies instead of merely playing a devil’s advocate role and siding with the opposition. This would cause a deadlock in Parliament and create political instability.
There are many questions that need to be settled before Malaysia can even consider implementing such a system. Do we replace the entire FPTP system with a PR system? Or do we follow the Australia system by using a PR system for the upper chamber only? What type of PR system is suitable for Malaysia? The Election Commission’s study must address these pertinent questions. In the near future, this issue of proportional representation might very well be one the headlines in our continuous fight for electoral reform. — letstalkpoliticsmalaysia.blogspot.com
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.