505: The day BN won the election but lost the contest

Photograph: Hitoribocchi

Although BN lost the popular vote, it remained in power. This paves the way for great uncertainty for politics in Malaysia in the years ahead. New strategic thinking is needed on all sides.

By Zairil Khir Johari

The evening began optimistically enough. By 7pm, my team members and I were gathered at the nomination centre, where the final votes were going to be tallied up and results announced by the returning officer. Ballot boxes had only just started trickling in, but from the unofficial feedback from the polling centres, we felt cautiously optimistic. Based on the initial numbers, it would appear that our hard work over the last 15 days had paid off. But what really preoccupied our minds was the bigger picture.

Around me, my team members were as nervous as I was. Our eyes remained glued to our smart phones, furiously refreshing news portals and twitter feeds for the latest information. Whoever first received an update would excitedly announce it to all and sundry.

As an hour passed, we felt even more upbeat.

Although the TV stations had announced victory for the minister Raja Nong Chik in Lembah Pantai, the alternative media (upon which we placed far greater trust) had the incoming Prime Minister’s daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, leading and set to bag her second ministerial scalp in as many elections.

Then news came of another minister’s defeat, in Malacca. Then another – this time a popular deputy minister – in Pahang. Government ministers were dropping like flies in Johor, Kedah and even at a hitherto safe naval seat in Perak. From the running numbers, a few other ministers’ necks also appeared to be on the chopping blocks. It now became difficult to remain calm.

After 56 years of one-party rule, was change finally about to happen? The prospect was dizzying.

However, as we now know, the evening ended in a crash. By two in the morning, despite our own local victory, our enthusiasm had been punctured and despondency had set in. We couldn’t stop asking each other, how did we lose a battle that, even to the very end, appeared to be going our way?

An engineered victory

As the dust settled, the picture soon became clearer. The ruling BN coalition had managed to cling on to power, though the Prime Minister’s expression during his victory speech did not give the impression of a man who had just won. On the other hand, the opposition Pakatan coalition’s electoral defeat, having won 89 seats or a mere 40% of the total 222 parliamentary seats, just did not feel right to anyone who had participated in the election.

This is because it wasn’t right.

Final statistics confirmed that Pakatan had won a commanding 51% of the popular vote, a share that would have been more than enough to win power in any other similar first-past-the-post Westminster-style democracy. Yet the ruling BN had swept 60% of the seats with only 47% of the popular vote.

Suddenly, Malaysians knew how Al Gore felt 13 years ago, except that a 266 to 271 loss in electoral college votes with a 48.4% share of the popular vote as opposed to George W Bush’s 47.9% does not quite compare to the situation in Malaysia, where Pakatan can boast of a clean majority – the first ever by an opposition coalition.

The results of the 13th General Election of course now stands as the clearest proof that the existing electoral system is a broken one. The fact is that the grossly disproportionate correlation between popular votes and seats won is a legacy stemming from five decades of gerrymandering, malapportionment and, worst of all, the erosion of constitutional safeguards meant to prevent the very same irrational variances that have occurred today.

When the Federal Constitution was formulated 56 years ago, Parliamentary seats were divided along two guiding principles: firstly, that each state would be divided into constituencies based on its population and number of voters and, secondly, that the number of voters in each constituency should not stray by more than 15% of the average in its state.

Nurul Izzah Anwar

The 15% deviation flexibility was to allow for rural weightage and ostensibly fairer representation for those in less accessible areas. However, this 15% deviation was increased to 100% in 1962 and removed altogether in 1973. As a result, we now have an irrational and wayward variance in number of voters from seat to seat, such as Putrajaya (15,971 voters) [1], Igan (17,771), Lubok Antu (19,303) and the ministerial seat of Padang Rengas (28,51, compared to Gombak (123,290), Serdang (133,139) and Kapar (144,159).

In other words, voters in certain areas (such as Putrajaya or Igan) have eight to nine times more value than voters in other areas (such as Serdang or Kapar), a situation which does not serve democracy well.

This discrepancy is true even between Parliamentary seats in the same state (something which would have been prohibited by the original 15% then 100% deviation caveat). For example, Kapar (144,159 voters) has four times the number of voters as its Selangor counterpart Sabak Bernam (37,31.

While an attempt could be made to justify some of the inconsistencies by reason of the urban-rural dynamic, in particular seats such as Igan and Lubok Antu in Sarawak and even to a certain extent Sabak Bernam in Selangor, nothing explains why Baling, a semi-urban seat in Kedah has 74,698 voters, which is far more than the 57,313 voters in the urban Kedah state capital of Alor Setar.
Photograph: Kwong Wah Yit Poh

In short, every Pakatan parliamentarian has had to shake more hands and visit far more houses in order to win.

The only explanation is a political one – Baling is known to be an opposition stronghold while Alor Setar has traditionally been won by BN. It is only when we apply this same consideration that the variance in the Sabak Bernam-Kapar case makes sense. Hence, it is no surprise to find that the other seats with excessively large voter populations such as Serdang and Gombak are also traditional Pakatan seats, while seats with far fewer voters such as Putrajaya, Igan, Lubok Antu and Padang Rengas are affiliated to BN.

Simply put, severe gerrymandering and malapportionment have been applied, not from a need to balance the urban-rural divide, but from a conscious BN policy to both reduce the effectiveness of Pakatan supporters as well as to make it infinitely harder for the opposition to win. As a result, the average Pakatan constituency has 77,655 voters while the average BN constituency has 46,510 (based on the recent General Election). In short, every Pakatan parliamentarian has had to shake more hands and visit far more houses in order to win.

As a corollary from this, the principle of seat-assignment based on state population has also been compromised. For example, Selangor, the state with the largest population and most number of voters, strangely does not have the most number of Parliamentary seats. Its 2.05 million voters are divided into 22 Parliamentary seats, which are fewer than Johor’s 26 seats and Perak’s 24 seats, despite the fact that the latter two have only 1.60 million and 1.41 million voters respectively.

In this regard, it is again no coincidence that Selangor, the most under-represented state, happens to be a Pakatan stronghold (Pakatan currently enjoys a two-thirds majority in the state assembly), while Johor, one of the most over-represented states, is a BN bastion.

It is a wonder in itself that Pakatan managed to win 51% of the popular vote. One can only imagine what the result would have been had the system been fairer.

The Chinese blame game

The results mean that the ruling BN will have to contend with two facts: that they would have lost badly were it not for the heavily distorted distribution of voters in their favour in addition to other electoral irregularities, and that they had effectively lost the support of a resounding majority of Malaysians.

Realisation of the above is critical if BN has any intention of regaining lost ground. Unsurprisingly, their actions post-election reveal that they are more content to retreat into a defensive shell.

Two days after the historic General Election, the BN-controlled mainstream media began an offensive against the minority Chinese electorate. Two national Malay dailies ran extremely provocative and racially-charged headlines, namely “What more do Chinese want?” (Utusan Malaysia) and “Chinese voters are two-faced” (Kosmo!).

Photograph: Thomas Timlen

This was followed up with belligerent rhetoric by prominent personalities such as a former Appeals Court judge warning the Chinese to brace against a possible backlash for betraying BN, as well as a public university pro-Chancellor openly calling for the abolishment of vernacular Chinese and Tamil schools. Topping it all was none other than the grand old man of Malaysian politics himself, former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who claimed that BN’s poor performance was due to the “ungrateful Chinese” who had “rejected the Malays’ hand of friendship”.

However, it must be pointed out that BN’s racial agenda is misplaced. Firstly, the ethnic Chinese make up barely 30% of total eligible voters. This means that the 51% of popular votes cast for Pakatan was clearly more than mono-ethnic in source, even if one were to assume every single Chinese voter voted for the opposition.

Secondly, Pakatan managed to increase their majorities in the state assemblies of Penang and Selangor by picking up extra Malay-majority seats (one in Penang, six in Selangor). At the same time, Malay support for Pakatan also saw an increase across most of its seats in these two states.

The Pakatan coalition also nearly won the state of Terengganu, where 96% of all voters are Malay. In Kelantan, another predominantly Malay state, Pakatan maintained its hold on the state government with a two-thirds majority. In addition, Pakatan also managed to gain many new Malay-majority seats from all over the country such as Alor Setar in Kedah, Sepang in Selangor, Dungun in Terengganu, Batu Pahat in Johor and a smattering of Bumiputera-majority seats in Sabah and Sarawak.

None of the above would have been possible if it were merely a “Chinese tsunami” as suggested by Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. The truth is Pakatan had managed to gain support across the board in most urban centres, making the victory more of an “urban tsunami”, if such a term is to be used.

While race is still a relevant factor in Malaysian politics, there is no doubt that BN’s unprecedented “loss” is due, not so much to racial considerations, but more to its inability to win over the urban electorate. This stems from its failure to address longstanding issues relevant to urban dwellers such as corruption, housing price inflation, lack of public transport infrastructure, spiralling household debt, stagnant economic growth and urban poverty.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Photograph: Marufish


As summarised by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) and the Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS), two locally-accredited election observers, the 13th General Election was “partially free but not fair”.

It is disingenuous of BN leaders to blame the voters without first looking at themselves. It is precisely their inability to understand the modern electoral dynamics of an urban population that has led to their fallacious racial hypothesis that effectively ignores the groundswell of Malay support for Pakatan in many areas throughout the country.

Tun Abdullah Ahamd Badawi.
Photograph: Wan Leonard

Four years ago, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was removed as Prime Minister for losing BN’s traditional two-thirds majority. This time, Najib has fared worse and is now stuck with the ignominy of leading the first minority government in Malaysia’s history.

Both coalitions now find themselves at a crossroads. For BN, its challenge is to find common ground with ordinary Malaysians, the majority of whom had voted for Pakatan. As it stands, its bellicose racial theatrics appear to be setting it in the wrong direction. For Pakatan, coalition-building remains a critical enterprise. Balancing the aspirations of the three seemingly-disparate partners (social democratic DAP, liberal democratic PKR and Islamist PAS) will require great care and even greater restraint.

For both BN and Pakatan, the winner of the next General Election will be the coalition that manages to position itself in the centre of mainstream Malaysian politics. This will entail articulating solutions to urban problems, spelling out a clear socioeconomic agenda and steering clear of hawkish tendencies.

While electoral irregularities will remain a thorn towards political change, it would be at the peril of any party to ignore the need to appeal to the Malaysian middle ground. This is an especially crucial consideration taking into account the rapid pace of urbanisation, internet penetration and changing demography of new voters in the future.

Whatever the case, the future looks set to be interesting for Malaysia.

Zairil Khir Johari is CEO of the Penang Institute and Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera.

[1] Putrajaya may be the only acceptable exception, bearing in mind it is a standalone Federal Territory.