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Proportional representation replacing FPTP for future elections?

  • Among the proposals are removing the RoS' authority to register political parties and possible moving away from the First-Past-The-Post voting system. Photo courtesy: AFP

By Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani

Recently, the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) was established by the government to study on the election laws and system, and electoral reforms which have been debated by many especially since the last three general elections in Malaysia.

Among the things that the ERC will study are the revamp of the Election Commission (EC), registration of political parties, and election funding mechanisms.

Its Chairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman said the ERC had presented 15 points on the reform agenda that would be studied by the committee for two years. The ERC is also studying if it should take away the authority from the Registrar of Societies (RoS) to register political parties and if the country should move away from the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system.

For me, the most interesting expect in this reforms is the review of FPTP system. FPTP is a voting method, in which citizens of a constituency cast votes for the candidate, whom they wish to represent them in the Parliament or state assembly. It is called simple majority system as well because one candidate can win with only one extra vote than votes received by other candidate.

This system has been used in Malaysia since independence in 1957 adopted from the United Kingdom (UK) system. However, this system was condemned by many observers and analysts as a system which is not proportionally representing the electorates when comes to voting. Criticisms to the FPTP system in Malaysia were getting louder since the end of 13th General Election (GE13) in 2013 particularly on the disparity between the popular vote and the seats won in the parliament of Malaysia.

Although the opposition Pakatan Rakyat won 51 per cent of the popular vote, the coalition only attained 89 seats, which is only slightly more than 40 per cent of the seats. This happened when the number of voters in each constituency would not be more same significantly.

For example in GE14, the parliamentary seat of Kapar had 169,989 voters, while Putrajaya had only 27,314 voters. There are many small constituencies located in Sabah, Sarawak and many rural areas in the Peninsular.

This situation occurred during the 14th General Election (GE14) in 2018 and previous elections has led to the urgency of reform in electoral system. Many criticize that it is undemocratic and exhibits signs of manipulating the boundaries to establish political advantage for the incumbent government. This raises the issue of misrepresentation of the people, rather than a representation.

Now, the big question is that if Malaysia wants to abandon the FPTP system, what system can be employed as the alternative. The UK Parliament still adopts the FPTP system even though UK failed in a referendum to replace it after facing hung parliament in 2011. On the other hand, other electoral systems are also used in the UK. For instance, the Northern Ireland Assembly adopts the ‘single transferable vote' system which ensures proportional representation. Both the National Assembly for Wales and Scottish Parliament adopt the ‘additional member system' to ensure a fairer distribution of seats in line with the popular vote.

New Zealand as a Commonwealth county has the experience in changing of voting system from FPTP to PR. Criticism of the unfairness of the FPTP voting system began earlier but intensified after the 1978 and 1981 general elections. On each occasion the Labour Opposition actually secured more votes overall than National, the ruling party, but National won more seats in Parliament and remained in government. In the early 1990s Jim Bolger's National government found itself under increasing pressure to respond to public demands for electoral reform.

It agreed to hold an indicative referendum (that is, one that was not binding on the government) on the issue on 19 September 1992. Although only 55% of registered electors took part, an overwhelming 85% voted to change their electoral system. In the second part of the poll, 70% favoured Proportional Representation (PR) system. Since then, New Zealand has adopted the PR system until today.

Instead of voting for candidate, PR is the system of election in which the people cast their votes directly to a political party. Proper study needs to be carried away before PR can be implemented in Malaysia because there are many models of PR system. Some countries like in Germany, Turkey and even our neighbour Indonesia have successfully practised PR systems according to the local needs and perspectives.

If we choose PR system in Malaysia, Federal Constitution needs to be amended in order to allow people to vote directly for political parties rather that candidate like today. The good thing about this, party's hopping or defection that happened currently can be avoided.

PR system can also allow not only proportional representation according to constituencies, but also political parties can also produce a list of representatives which will also represent women, youths, and minorities. The issue of 30 percent representation of women and youths in the parliament can be resolved well than in the FPTP system. Instead of one candidate representing one constituency, in the PR system, one or more representative can be elected from one constituency.

The main concern for many is that how can the PR system fit in the Malaysia's federalism and party system. PR will encourage multi-party system in Malaysia. Normally, there is no clear winner in the election where party receives a less than 50% of votes which let them to form a coalition after the election.

Malaysia is unique in the sense that coalition parties were formed prior to election such as the Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Barisan Nasional (BN). Interesting to observe whether PR system will be implemented in Malaysia where constituencies will be transformed and increased in line with the relatively equal number of voters.

Besides, there is a possibility that we practise dual voting systems where in federal level will implement PR system but in state level, and even local government level, will practise FPTP. Whatever system that we practise, it must suit the locality or unique to Malaysian demography.

As a citizen, I am welcoming the move by the government to review the voting system. This would obviously help Malaysia to become more democratic and democratic culture and values would be embraced continuously for the common good of our beloved nation.

(Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani is lecturer of School of International Studies, University Utara Malaysia.)



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