Following the pivotal 10th Sarawak State Election in which Sarawak emerged with a changed political landscape, Wee Wui Kiat asks whether our current system of vote counting and selection of candidates are truly capable of delivering fair representation in our Parliament and State Assemblies.
ON THE 9TH DAY OF APRIL 2011, THE NOMINATION DAY FOR THE SARAWAK 2011 10TH STATE ELECTION, it came to light that this state election created a record number of 213 contesting candidates with many three-cornered or even four-cornered fights. For instance, many worried that the opposition votes will be split among Pakatan Rakyat component parties namely Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Sarawak National Party (SNAP) or independents in 26 seats to the advantage of the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional.
If our voters’ true voice can be so easily defeated by vote-splitting, is our system of election free and fair for all? We may be free to elect but are all Sarawakians fairly represented in our Dewan Undangan Negeri and Parliament, and have our voices adequately heard in the decision-making process?
Fair representation is not only determined by the more familiar and sensational issues of electoral fraud (rigged or dirty elections) which include allegations of vote-buying, phantom voters and a biased election commission. This article shall focus on something not many Malaysians have turned their minds to and it is this: even if we assume the best that our elections are clean and there is totally no foul-play or electoral fraud, is our current system of vote-counting and selection of the winner inherently capable of delivering a truly fair representation in our Parliament or State Assemblies or can it be further improved?
(1) Old School – First Past The Post Voting System
In Malaysia, members of legislatures be it Parliament or State Assemblies are elected using the first past the post system (FPTP). The system is simple enough – the candidate who has the most number of votes wins although that candidate may not have received the majority of all votes cast. The term first past the post is derived from an analogy to horse racing, where the winner of the race is the first to pass a particular point (the ‘post’) on the track (in this case a plurality of votes), after which all other runners automatically and completely lose (that is, the payoff is ‘winner-takes-all’). There is, however, no ‘post’ that the winning candidate must pass in order to win because the winning candidate is required only to have received the highest number of votes in his or her favour. This results in the alternative name sometimes being ‘farthest past the post’.
The voter is required to cross the ballot paper next to the candidate of their choice. If there are two candidates, whoever has the majority of votes wins. If there are three candidates, whoever has the most number of votes wins even though his votes may not exceed half of all votes cast. Hence in a three-cornered fight in a FPTP system, it is still possible for a candidate to win even though he only commands 40% of the total votes cast with the two other candidates, sharing a common agenda, collectively commanding a higher percentage of 60% of the total votes cast.
However there is a plethora of differences in electoral systems worldwide. Ill-informed Malaysians may have thought that just because Malaysians are allowed to vote, our electoral system are similar to any other democratic nations or that our representatives are selected in the same way.
When we talk about different models of democratic governments, what usually comes into our mind are the structural differences, either constitutional monarchies, a bi-cameral parliamentary system headed by a Prime Minister or a republican congress with an executive President. But not only do democracies differ in their structural sense, they also differ greatly from each other in their electoral processes.
Australia uses a combined system of preferential voting (also known as instant-runoff voting) and proportional voting to elect the upper house. The United Kingdom uses as many as six systems including the single member plurality system (first past the post), multi-member plurality system, party list, single transferable vote, additional member system and supplementary vote. Continental Europeans on the other hand prefer proportional representation. American presidential elections involve the Electoral College system.
(2) The Wisdom of Preferential voting system in Multi-Corner Fights
In light of the dilemma Sarawak voters faced when votes may be split against their wish in three-cornered or four cornered election fights, it will be very helpful to understand the advantage of the preferential voting system. The preferential voting system allows competition between two parties toeing similar party lines (for instance two anti-Labour parties in the Australian context or two anti-Barisan Nasional parties in the Malaysian context) without risking or sacrificing the seat so as to prevent the negative effects of vote-splitting.
Voters are required to vote by placing the number ‘1’ against the candidate of their choice, known as their ‘first preference‘. Then, voters are required to place the numbers ‘2’, ‘3’ etc. against the other candidates listed on the ballot paper in the order of the voters’ preference. The counting of the ‘first preference’ votes, also known as ‘primary vote’ shall take place first. If no candidate secures an absolute majority (more than half) of the primary votes, then the candidate with the least number of votes will be eliminated from the count. After that, the ballot papers of the eliminated candidate are examined and re-allocated amongst the remaining candidates according to the number ‘2’ or ‘second preference’ votes.
If there is still no candidate securing an absolute majority of the votes, then the next candidate with the least number of ‘primary votes’ will be eliminated and his ballots allocated to the remaining candidates according to preference. Where a second preference is expressed for a candidate who has already been eliminated, the ballot will be re-allocated to the voter’s third or subsequent preferred candidate. The process will go on until one candidate obtains a majority of votes.
The advantage of preferential voting minimizing the negative effects of vote-splitting lies in allowing the voters’ many different concerns to be prioritised and thus is better represented on issues. All political parties, candidates or election manifestos stand for more than one single issue. A candidate who advocates the implementation of minimum wage may at the same time object to loosening immigration laws and favours tougher tax laws. Likewise, voters have many different reasons for voting a candidate of their choice – some vote because of one political issue, some vote because of the candidates’ star quality, some vote as their vote of no confidence, some vote because of the candidates’ ethnicity or religion whilst some simply vote because they know the candidate personally.
For example, a constituency may have a three-cornered fight where candidate A and candidate B both advocate a similar position for the implementation of minimum wage contest against candidate C who advocates against the implementation of minimum wage. If 60% of that constituency’s voters support the implementation of minimum wage but their votes are split resulting in candidates A and B each gaining 32% and 28% respectively of all votes cast, then under the FPTP system candidate C would be declared the winner for gaining 40% of all votes cast eventhough candidate C’s objection against minimum wage is hardly supported by a majority of the voters of that constituency.
However in the preferential voting system, neither candidates A, B nor C would have secured an absolute majority of more than half of the primary votes. Therefore, candidate B with the least number of votes (28%) will be eliminated from the count and candidate B’s ballot papers will be re-allocated among candidates A and C according to the ballot papers’ number 2 or ‘second preference’ votes. If candidate A obtains enough ‘second preference’ votes from candidate B’s supporters due to candidate A’s similar position on the issue of minimum wage to exceed candidate C’s votes and achieve a majority, then candidate A will be declared the winner and implementation of minimum wage will have its voice and crucial vote in the legislature on behalf of that constituency. Vice versa, it is also possible for candidate C to obtain enough ‘second preference’ votes to achieve a majority and be declared the winner due to other election issues which he stood for other than the issue of minimum wage.
(3) The Beauty of the All-Inclusive Proportional Representation
The whole underlying concept of Proportional Representation is in contrast to the American or British plurality voting “winner-takes-all” systems (which includes the Malaysian first past the post system) where a candidate with the most votes wins when only winning less than half of all votes cast (say 30 -40%) while the other candidates lose out totally without any seats eventhough they may have garnered more than 50% of all votes cast, especially in a multi-cornered fight. Hence, all those voters who voted for the lost candidates would have totally no representation in the legislature.
However, Proportional Representation offers the number of seats according to the percentage of votes won. Hence if a party only wins 15% of all votes cast in a constituency, 15% of the seats shall be awarded to the party in question. Voters vote for a list of candidates from each party or coalition rather than for individual candidates, and sometimes a preferential voting element is incorporated by allowing voters to allocate their preferences by ranking their individual candidates in these lists. This inclusive nature of proportional representation allows all voters a voice and representation in legislatures, thus increasing a more participatory influence on political processes no matter how marginal or sidelined they are.
While a preferential voting system prevents vote-splitting in the same one constituency, proportional representation may also solve mal-apportionment across different constituencies (the allocation of more or fewer electoral districts to one part of a country or state than its population would merit). In a FPTP system, candidates in a disproportionately highly-populated constituency may lose a seat while having a relatively large number of popular votes (eg. 15,000 votes) while a candidate from another disproportionately under-populated rural constituency may still win a seat by securing a relatively lower popular vote (eg. 4,000 votes).
Some even make the comparison that proportional representation used in many European countries is more democratic than the plurality system of the US and Westminster elections of United Kingdom which have been regarded as only semi-democratic.
In a nutshell, proportional representation prevents the tyranny of the majority but leaving it at risk to a highly-fragmented legislature.
Proportional representation is used in many different forms (party-list system, additional-member system, single transferable vote in a multi-member constituency, etc.). Even the United Kingdom is using a variation of this system, namely the mixed-member system for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh National Assembly and local authorities, and in Australia for the Senate and certain states. The list of all available alternative electoral systems could go on endlessly if not limited by the acceptable length of this article.
At times, the First Past The Post system works in the same way as the knock-out phase of FIFA Word Cup soccer semi-finals. When both equally strong teams such as the Dutch and Spanish are pitched against one another, then ultimately one will be knocked out of the competition. The loser can forget about second place even though it may be much stronger than a weaker winner from the other semifinal. But in an election, the FPTP system offers even less because the losing candidate will end up with no seat at all whereas the loser in World Cup semifinals could still have a go at winning third place. On the other hand, Preferential and Proportional Representation are more analogous to the points-based elimination qualifying rounds of FIFA World Cup which take into account the varying strengths of different teams in relation to one another before allowing them to go into knock-out phase.
Too much is at stake for us to allow for wishful thinking and devote our nation’s destiny in personal morality alone. To expect opportunistic candidates not to split votes, to expect the election commission to be impartial in discharging their duties or to expect corrupt candidates not to betray their constituencies – how different is that from expecting an absolute monarch of the thirteenth century to refrain himself out of his own freewill from plundering the state treasury or tyrannize his subjects? The rakyat’s ‘will’ to change alone is not enough if we do not have the ‘means’ to deliver and maintain the fruit of such changes.
After completing the initial heated phase of every popular revolution – heightening of the rakyat’s ‘will’ through their awareness, freedom of expression, shouting slogans and demonstrations on the streets, the actual success of revolutions very often depend on the second phase, which is implementing the correct ‘means’ of maintaining the fruits of revolution. This involves going back to the drawing-board with a cool head to find a better formula or electing the new system of government and future transition of power. So many revolutions have failed miserably simply because the new governments themselves transformed into new tyrants.
The whole point of having a democracy, parliamentary representation and constitution in the first place is to put in place a system designed and calculated carefully to check human fallacies and excesses. The same goes for the electoral process which should mathematically maximize representation of our rakyat in the law-making process. A well-calculated system can reduce institutional flaws and minimize damage caused by failures of morality.
In a country as demographically and geographically diverse as Malaysia, or for that matter Sarawak, to confine ourselves to a voting system where the winner takes all may still leave us with much room for improvement.
Wee Wui Kiat believes that hypocrisy is a weapon of mass destruction more dangerous to human civilisation than nuclear weapons.