Electoral System Change for a More Democratic Malaysia? Challenges and Options examines the possible implications of the proposed change in the electoral system in Malaysia from the first-past-the-post (FPTP) to closed-list proportional representation (CLPR) and explores possible positive and negative impacts of several options currently on the table. It also analyses and evaluates the various reasonings put forward by the proponents and opponents of an electoral system change. Besides, salient findings from the focus group discussions which informed a nationwide survey will provide preliminary perspectives of the Malaysian public on the proposed electoral system change.
The proposed electoral system change by the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) is a culmination of years of advocacy work by a growing electoral reform movement in Malaysia, in particular the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH). Electoral system reform was stated as one among eight items of the long-term reform agenda BERSIH put forward when it was first launched on 23rd November 2006 in the Parliament House. The very first joint communique of the coalition criticized the ‘incredibly high disproportionality’ in the translation of popular vote into seats in the 2004 general election and the malpractices of gerrymandering and malapportionment in the Malaysian FPTP electoral system.
2015 to 2018 was marked by intensified public scrutiny of the constituency boundary review proposals made public by the Election Commission (EC) and the subsequent mobilization and objections filed against perceived irregularities, particularly blatant malapportionment and gerrymandering. The process first began with Sarawak throughout 2015, whose new constituency redelineation plan was subsequently gazetted in December 2015, just in time for the 2016 state election. The review process for the new electoral maps of West Malaysia and Sabah was then launched in 2016. After bulldozing through strenuous efforts of the civil society actors and opposition party leaders in contesting the irregularities identified4, the government tabled the new electoral maps and got them approved in the parliament at the end of March, just in time for GE14 on 9 May 2018.
The most important proponents for a change in the electoral system in Malaysia have no doubt been civil society actors led by Bersih 2.0, and it was one of the long-term goals defined in its electoral reform agenda from its foundation. Nonetheless, the last push which sharpened its resolve was the drawn-out struggle against the EC during the electoral boundary delimitation review exercise between 2015 and 2018. Despite strenuous mobilization to challenge the apparent irregularities and inconsistencies that existed in the new delimitation plan, the EC and the government eventually succeeded in pushing it through in time for the 2016 Sarawak state election and the 2018 general election. Aware of the politically Herculean challenge to persuade an incumbent government to let go of its advantage in influencing the EC and election management in their favour, an introduction of a CLPR component is thought by its advocates to be able to address the perennial issue of partisan malapportionment and gerrymandering.
Ultimately, the choice of an electoral system may boil down to deciding between two different normative visions of what constitutes a democratic political representation and what role an electoral system should play to enhance democratic governance. The majoritarian systems encourage more decisive electoral outcomes and the relative
ease to form a majority government, a clearer line of political accountability and a clearcut political divide of differentiated political orientations. The voters get a clearer view of alternative choices of the political line-up as well as a direct say on the legislator representing their respective constituencies. However, critics of FPTP argue that a strong government could lead to an ‘elective dictatorship’ whereby the government may not be responsive enough to the people’s grouses.
The proportional systems, on the other hand, are premised on the importance of electoral outcomes which should reflect as closely and widely as possible the voters’ preferences, in particular the minority groups. Their proponents prioritise consensus building, negotiation and power-sharing—which may also be perceived by its detractors as indecisiveness and political compromise. The political divide among parties with different political orientations may be blurred, changeable or ambiguous, in particular when negotiating to form a post-electoral majority government. In effect, governing based on a minority government or a long period of delay in forming a government due to intricate inter-party negotiation is quite commonplace in some countries under a CLPR electoral system such as in Italy or Belgium.
Electoral system change does not occur easily as the incumbents who rise to power through it would not want the change which is expected to be detrimental to their future political fortune. It usually occurs during an unprecedented conjuncture of crisis, and the final form which is agreeable by all is often an imperfect compromise which may deviate from the original intention or what may rationally be judged to be the ideal. On top of that, even if the design is as intended, the electoral outcomes brought about by the new system may not turn out as planned—as the Russian case demonstrates. Hence an electoral system may persist not because it is the ‘best’ or the most democratic but simply because those who thrive on the existing electoral system would do anything to maintain the status quo. Great care should be taken in the deliberation of a matter which could exert significant impacts—both desirable and undesirable—on the political landscape of the country.