My kingdom for a democracy — Projek BERES

FEBRUARY 13, 2014

FEB 13 — In October 2011, Datuk Seri Najib Razak formed the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform (PSC). This was in response to the groundswell from BERSIH.

Given the extremely polarised political landscape at the time, it was no surprise that when it set out its 22 recommendations in April 2012, it was not a holistic remedy, nor did it see anything other than condemnation from the opposition for being insincere.

For some Malaysians, however, the concession that the electoral system needed to be improved, was an encouraging first step. But the problems which leave it short of a robust and representative democracy run deeper than just the use of indelible ink, or dead people on the electoral roll.

Those are the tip of the proverbial iceberg, which despite Malaysia’s tropical heat, has only packed on layers upon layers of obfuscation over the years. Experts say that more than 650 changes have been made to the Federal Constitution, leaving no doubt that its original spirit has been diluted.

While changes are necessary to keep up with the irrepressible march of migration, technology and culture, the constitutional amendments that impact our elections, coupled with others made to electoral law and regulations, have instead caused a drift between the reality of the Malaysian polity, and the system which represents it.
No less than former Election Commission Chairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid said a royal commission of inquiry (RCI) on electoral reforms was necessary as Bersih’s demands and proposals by the PSC on electoral reforms were not holistic enough.

“(Holistic reform) means studying all the laws, not just one or two. This is like changing the car battery, spark plug and engine oil. This type of quick fix will (cause) bigger problems. The core policies is the same,” he was quoted as saying by Sinar Harian.

After the PSC recommendations were unveiled, a group of Malaysians, with no power to call for an RCI, or to contest in parliamentary elections, decided then that the solution was to draft the amendments to the legislation ourselves.

Some of us are legal practitioners, some activists, some academics, some auditors, some just plain ol’ Malaysians. But we wanted to walk the talk, and we wanted to show that civil society wasn’t just a rantbox. The government consistently calls for critics to offer solutions.

So here we are.

Projek BERES is an electoral reform group that is NOT interested in playing the blame game.

Our focus is not on uncovering fraud and changing past results – we leave this to other civil movements to fight out with the authorities -- but in how to strengthen our el ectoral process.

Our approach is simple. Identify problems, offer solutions. In all, we now have 80 recommendations.

For now, we want to present two key changes that we feel are crucial to making any progress in terms of getting popular buy-in to our ideas. The first, is to hit the reset button and completely remap electoral constituencies to ensure each vote is as equal as possible under current sociopolitical circumstances. We want to increase Parliamentary seats to 230 and distribute to States using two methodologies:

Firstly, federal seats for each state must reasonably reflect voter population. Therefore, for example, Selangor seats will increase while Perak and Johor seats decrease (see Table 1). Secondly, Sabah and Sarawak seats must increase in accordance with the ratio of seats in the 1963 Malaysia Agreement. This was an agreement in good faith between the three and Singapore, on how to proceed with nation-building based on a consensus between various communities and demographics.

We know this may seem counterintuitive as the East Malaysian states already have the lowest voter to seat ratio (electoral quotient, or EQ). But consider this an interim measure so as not to disenfranchise the East Malaysian partners until infrastructure and communications networks here are brought closer to par with the Peninsula.

These two steps reset the distribution by going back to square one in terms of what was agreed by the three partners of the federation, and also ensuring that in the Peninsula, where malapportionment is at critical levels, all voters are treated as equally as possible.

In fact, if we define the guidelines for the number of voters per constituency to be within 10 percent of the EQ for Peninsular Malaysia (it was 15 percent in 1957 before eventually being erased from the constitution) and 15 percent for Sabah and Sarawak (to reflect the much wider infrastructural gaps there), we find the difference in terms of voters per seat is greatly reduced from recent elections.

At the most extreme, the largest seat in the Peninsula will be three times the size of the smallest in Sarawak, as opposed to more than nine times during GE13 (Kapar : Putrajaya). In the future, when Malaysia reaches developed status, ie by 2020, the variance allowed should be reduced to five percent.

Let us be clear, this is an interim proposal. A lot of damage has been done in terms of growing mistrust among Malaysians, so let us show good faith in returning to original agreements and then working our way forward from there.

There are other ideas in the works, including senate reform and proportional representation to ensure even more parity while preserving the safeguards and interests of various groups. The idea here is not to summarily dismiss historical concerns but to build democratic trust, which will allow us to make even more inroads towards better representation.

Our second major proposal is to have an Election Ombudsman to police the Election Commission to ensure it complies with its Constitutional mandate. Given major concerns over the role of the EC in past elections, we feel the best solution is to allow it to continue functioning as an independent institution, given that its leadership has complained in the past of not having enough resources to carry out all its responsibilities.

The Election Ombudsman will instead monitor the Election Commission, which currently has unfettered powers to run all matters related to an election. The Ombudsman will address complaints on the conduct of the Commission and instruct it to comply, as well as review regulations and procedures in how an election is carried out.

However, any legal failings by the Commission or other persons will still be up to the Public Prosecutor to take up in court.

But just as with the EC previously, how can we be sure the EO will be independent? Well, we are yet to work out the exact mechanics, but the appointment by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, after consultation with the Conference of Rulers, and will be at the advice of not just the Prime Minister, but also the Leader of the Opposition.

We have and will continue to review current electoral legislation, including the Federal Constitution, and draft amendments to regulations to address any inadequacies in the provisions. These will be benchmarked against regional peers and international standards.

The level of political bickering has not eased even after the eventual elections held on May 5 this year. Worse, the opposition claimed widespread fraud and challenged the government’s legitimacy as for the first time in history, Barisan Nasional failed to gain the popular majority.

It might be fair to say no coalition has absolute legitimacy today. This is a clear obstacle for us as a nation to move forward. It is too late to do anything about GE13, but we have up to four years before the next polls. Our recommendations include and require constitutional amendments, so we need wide-ranging support. We need a 2/3s show of hands in Parliament.

As such, we repeat, we cannot afford to be partisan. But we appeal to all lawmakers, office-bearers and citizens, to join us and move forward to an electoral system that will allow for a government with as strong a claim to legitimacy as possible. This is in the best interest of any incumbent and government-in-waiting.

Prokej BERES will continue to unveil and detail proposals in coming weeks. We welcome feedback and input. Our objective, finally, is to go as deep as possible and reform the system from the roots without isolating anyone. We hope this is what you want too.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.

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