Choosing the electoral system for tomorrow's Malaysia
First Published:7:01am, Aug 30, 2013
Last Updated:8:43am, Aug 30, 2013
'Witnessing history' by Wong Chin Huat
THERE is not really such a thing as the best electoral system. Rather, we just have electoral systems offering us different strengths and different weaknesses. In that sense, in considering the best alternative to the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system, we should set out with some criteria or goals in mind.
Reflecting on our experience and context, I would propose the following criteria:
1. It should be representative and fair, ensuring the democratic legitimacy of government.
2. It should deter fraud and manipulation.
3. It should encourage moderation.
4. It should encourage elected representatives' accountability to voters.
5. It should facilitate diversity in legislature.
So, how do FPTP, Preferential Voting and MMP fare under these criteria?
Criterion 1: Representativeness, fairness and democratic legitimacy
FPTP generally fails in ensuring representativeness as amplifying the strength of the winner ensuring a strong government is in fact its purpose. In fact, FPTP may produce minority winners at both the constituency level as in many cases of multi-cornered fights and the national level as we have been experiencing since May.
In this sense, Preferential Voting is an improved alternative to FPTP, as there can never be a minority winner at the constituency level. At the national level, the Australian system remains vulnerable to the problems of excessive vote-seat disproportionality and minority government in term of votes.
In comparison, MMP can pursue maximum proportionality at the national level but at the constituency level, its FPTP component will of course inherit the problem of minority winner.
Criterion 2: Deterrence of fraud and manipulation
Both FPTP and Preferential Voting are vulnerable to fraud and manipulation from malapportionment, gerrymandering, tampering of electoral rolls to vote buying for the same reason: the national outcome will be determined at small local constituencies, hence, it is possible to pursue marginal gains in selected constituencies.
Of course, when it comes to polling and counting, the complicated Preferential Voting poses good obstacles as compared to the FPTP.
In comparison, because the final seat share will be determined by party vote share, MMP eliminates completely the incentives to malapportion and gerrymander constituencies.
The parties may still cheat but it will have to cheat by increasing its party vote share in commensurate portion of the additional vote share it desires. And the crime can hardly be profitable.
Criterion 3: Promotion of moderation
This is one of the most important criteria in deciding an electoral system, especially for a diverse society like Malaysia.
The conventional view would place FPTP at an advantage as its winner-takes-all characteristics will force political groups to consolidate into two blocs which will then compete in the middle.
Malaya/Malaysia's decades of authoritarianism are of course an antithesis to this myth.
In comparison, Preferential Voting may claim this as its strongest point. To ensure victory, candidates are wise to not take extreme positions and alienate any groups so that they may still hope for their second, third, nth preference votes even if the first preference is out of question.
This may further encourages coalition building by encouraging candidates to endorse each other for the lower preference votes of their own supporters.
MMP, like other forms of Proportional Representation (PR) systems, is often accused of causing party proliferation, political fragmentation and eventually, political instability.
What Germany and New Zealand do is to impose a 5% threshold of party votes or winning a certain number of FPTP seats, as a threshold before a party can claim party list seats.
However, as we have argued previously, the real key to moderation is actually the opportunity to rule or share power. Hence, if we introduce decentralisation and local elections to expand the opportunities of various parties come into power and form coalitions, their behaviours will be better moderated than under the current FPTP system.
Criterion 4: Elected representatives' accountability to voters
On one hand, FPTP, Preferential Voting and MMP all provide geographical representation so that the constituents' local needs can be attended to.
On the other hand, the three electoral systems differ significantly in the control of political parties vis-ΰ-vis the voters have over the candidates.
FPTP, in the rigid context of coalition politics in Malaysia, hands the power to the coalitions' and parties top leadership to decide which component party and which leader to run in a constituency.
Not having to worry about consequences of vote splitting, voters in the Preferential Voting system can afford to support candidates dropped by party leadership.
On the surface, MMP would give party leadership the power to decide candidates on both FPTP and Party List sections.
However, put in Malaysia's context, party votes would allow competition between allies within a coalition. Also, dropped candidates can have a better chance to appeal to voters for either party votes or FPTP votes.
Hence, in contrast to FPTP, both systems in the Malaysian context would somehow weaken party leadership's control on candidacy and strengthen democracy within parties or between parties and supporters.
Criterion 5: Diversity
There is no coincidence that most countries that have high percentage of women in Parliament are countries with Party List systems. The nature of Party List system simply facilitates reservation of seats for certain demographic groups.
For example, if the state wants to have one-third of women amongst parliamentarians, it just needs to legislate that every one of three candidates by a party must be women. In this way, even the most patriarchal party would have to at least nominate one woman after two men in its list and the more seats it gets, the more women will be elected in. (See Table 1 below)
The same method can be used to ensure representation of other groups such as aboriginal peoples or disabled.
By virtue of having half of the parliamentarians from the party list section, an MMP Parliament can therefore have a more diverse composition to represent the population.
As a matter of fact, parties can have division of labour between FPTP parliamentarians who have to serve the constituent needs and Party List parliamentarians who are there to represent their demographic groups and/or to contribute their expertise.
Hence, parties can fill their party list lawmakers with professionals, scholars and experts to ensure better policy making.
A debate is needed
The electoral system can have vast influence on our political life. It is good that the Election Commission is now studying the electoral systems of other countries. It would be tragic however if it or the government alone decides what electoral system we should have tomorrow.
That should be a conscious choice of all Malaysians after a comprehensive debate on the pros and cons of the proposed options.
Attached to Penang Institute, Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a political activist by choice. He believes that like it or not, we are witnesses to history. We can choose to shape it or be shaped by it. This article is part of a series on electoral reforms written by Wong. This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not represent the view offz.com.