Commentary Politics World

Flawed Malaysian electoral system? Look West please

ge-14-PAS

Zaidi Azmi
Written by Zaidi Azmi

April 10, 2018

KUALA LUMPUR: IF there is one thing that some Malaysians will have to put up with – while probably rolling their eyes – after the coming elections, is the seemingly inevitable scathing post-election discussions by foreign media and their own pro-opposition alternative media.

More so if the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) wins yet another one.

The thrashing over the integrity of Malaysia’s elections usually involves incessant mentioning of gerrymandering, abuse of institutional tools and fictitious phantom voters who, despite being widely reported, were somehow never caught.

In the 2013 contest the hammering went up up a few notches after BN won while receiving less total or popular votes – which was the first since Malaya had its first general elections in 1955 – against the now-defunct Pakatan Rakyat.

Malaysia’s 13th general election results

Registered voters

13,268,002

Turnout

11,257,147 (84.84 per cent)

 

Barisan Nasional

Pakatan Rakyat

Leader

Najib Razak

Anwar Ibrahim

Popular votes

5,237,699 (47.38 per cent)

5,623,984 (50.87 per cent)

Seats won

140 seats (51.39 per cent)

82 seats (47.79 per cent)

Swing

4.01 per cent

3.08 per cent

Capitalising on such a loss, The Economist, New York Times, Washington Post, Times of London, The New Yorker, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, CNN, BBC had through couched nuances stressed on Malaysia’s supposedly compromised electoral system.

Aljazeera had a 25-minute special report called “Malaysia’s election scandals” where it invited PKR vice-president Nurul Izzah Anwar to talk about claims of electoral rigging.

Nurul Izzah’s claims of faulty indelible ink, the deployment of Bangladeshi pantom voters, which was also echoed by her father PKR de-facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, have until today never been proven in court.

Why Al-Jazeera used the word scandals in a report that highlighted unproven claims is anybody’s guess but those familiar with the English language would have known that such a word is used to describe controversies that have been legitimately proven.

Those keeping tabs on these reports would have also noticed the wide coverage that Anwar and his absurd-for-least-popular-party-to-form-government contention were given.

It was a tad peculiar for Anwar or any other opposition leaders to raise such argument as the electoral system which Malaysia had inherited was that of the British’s Westminster parliamentary system which also uses the first-past-the-post (FPP) voting method.

Under FPP, a candidate who secures the most number of votes wins whichever electoral seat he or she contests and the party with the most winners gets to form the government.

Inadvertently, it means winning popular votes is essentially of no consequence to those adopting the Westminster parliamentary system.

But of course such a fact did nothing to silence the critics.

The Economist, for example, published a series of caustic commentaries laden with innuendos over how BN’s supposedly tawdry victory during GE13 was due to systemic electoral rigging.

But what the London-based publication failed to mention was that Malaysian’s BN was not the first political party to form the government despite losing the popular votes.

Britain has had three such instances when the party which won less votes ended up winning the election.

The UK general elections in which the winning party had less popular votes

1929 — Labour versus Conservatives

 

Ramsay MacDonald

Stanley Baldwin

Popular vote

8,084,968

8,252,527

Seats won

287

260

Party

Labour

Conservative

Winner

Labour

1951 — Labour versus Conservative

 

Winston Churchill

Clement Atlee

Popular vote

13,717,851

13,948,385

Seats won

321

295

Party

Labour

Conservative

Winner

Labour

1974 — Labour versus Conservative

 

Harold Wilson

Edward Heath

Popular vote

11,645,616

11,872,180

Seats won

301

297

Party

Labour

Conservative

Winner

Labour

The United States has had five presidential elections in which the winner lost the popular vote, including the 1824 election, which was the year in which the number of popular votes was first recorded.

However, unlike in Britain and Malaysia, candidates running for president in the US must win the electoral college votes to get to the White House.

Under the electoral college system, a candidate who wins the most votes gets all of that state’s electoral votes regardless if the candidate won by a slim majority.

The US presidential elections in which the electoral college winner had less popular votes

1824 — Andrew Jackson versus John Quincy Adams

 

Jackson

Adams

Popular vote

151,271 (41.4 per cent)

113,122 (30.9 per cent)

Electoral college vote

84

99

Party

Democratic-Republican

Winner

Adams

1876 — Samuel J. Tilden versus Rutherford B. Hayes

 

Tilden

Hayes

Popular votes

4,288,546 (47.9 per cent)

4,034,311 (50.9 per cent)

Electoral college

184

185

Party

Democratic

Republican

Winner

Hayes

1888 — Grover Cleveland versus Benjamin Harrison

 

Cleveland

Harrison

Popular votes

5,534,488 (48.6 per cent)

5,443,892 (47.8 per cent)

Electoral college

168

233

Party

Democratic

Republican

Winner

Harrison

2000 — Al Gore versus George W. Bush

 

Gore

Bush

Popular votes

50,999,987 (48.9 per cent)

50,456,002 (47.9 per cent)

Electoral college

266

271

Party

Democratic

Republican

Winner

Bush

2016 — Hillary Clinton versus Donald J. Trump

 

Clinton

Trump

Popular votes

65,853,514 (48.2 per cent)

62,984,828 (46.1 per cent)

Electoral college

227

304

Party

Democratic

Republican

Winner

Trump

A case in point would be how Donald Trump won all 27 electoral votes in Florida in the 2016 presidential election after securing 4,602,515 votes or 49.1 per cent as opposed to Hillary Clinton who received 4,485,757 votes or 47.8 per cent.

The electoral college however is not the only mind-boggling component in the US voting system.

For example in 2000, the people in Missouri elected a dead man, Mel Carnahan –who died in a plane crash three weeks before polling day – as their senator because the state election laws would not allow his name to be removed.

Mel’s wife Jean was offered to take his post, making her the eighth widow to assume a late husband’s Senate seat but the first to stand in for her spouse on election day.

The ways in which the US settles tied elections are also a tad outrageous, with many are done through a number of games of chance, including poker hands, coin flips, envelope and lottery draws.

Crazy ways US solves its tie-breakers

Random lottery

·       Republican David Yancey got a seat in the state’s House of Delegates on January 4, 2018.

·       The drawing decided the 94th District race between Yancey, the incumbent, and Shelly Simonds, who finished in a 11,608-to-11,608 vote tie.

Envelope draw

·       In Florida in 2014, a Mount Dora City Council race was decided when the city clerk drew a sealed envelope with one candidate’s name out of a felt top hat.

Coin flips

·       In Alaska in 2006, a Democratic primary for a House seat was decided by a coin toss. The coin featured walruses on the heads side and the Alaska state seal on the tails side.

·       Incumbent Carl Moses called heads, the coin came up tails, so challenger Bryce Edgmon was named the winner.

Poker hands

·       In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore topped George W. Bush in New Mexico by just 366 votes.

·       If the two had tied, state law would have called for the election to be decided by a game of chance, such as a single hand of poker.

Despite such eccentricities, discussions on the need for the US electoral system to be reformed were never widely discussed by the Western media, at least, not as vehemently as they have done with Malaysia’s or any other developing country’s supposedly flawed system.

For example, despite their incessant hammering over Malaysia’s Malay-centric gerrymandering, the foreign media did not even bat an eye over New Zealand’s Maori-only parliamentary seats.

Maori, the indigenous minority which makes up 14.9 per cent of the total population in New Zealand, was first given the right to vote in 1897 where they were only allowed to vote in four Maori-only seats as compared to the European settlers’ 72 seats.

The rationale behind the Maori-only seats was because the European settlers wanted to foster good relationship with the former and that doing so would also boost economic opportunities for the Maori.

In 1985, the country’s Royal Commission on the Electoral System proposed to abolish the seats if New Zealand parliament wanted to do away with the FPP and adopted the mixed-member proportional system (MMP).

Most Maori however wanted to keep the seats and so despite the change in the country’s voting system to MMP, the Maori-only seats were not only kept but were increased to five in 1996 – the first increase in 129 years – which later grew to seven in 2002.

Now imagine how frenzied foreign media, particularly those of the west, would have been if Malaysia had parliamentary seats reserved exclusively for economically-underprivileged ethnic groups?

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About the author

Zaidi Azmi

Zaidi Azmi

If Zaidi Azmi isn’t busy finding his way in the city, this 26-year-old northern kampung boy can be found struggling to make sense of the Malaysian political scene. Zaidi can be reached at [email protected]