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Friday May 10, 2013

Lessons to be learned

WHAT an emotional roller coaster ride the 13th general election has been.

On the eve of polling, and indeed on polling day itself, I was keyed up and excited as I’ve never felt before any other previous election that I’ve voted in.

I think I wasn’t alone among Malaysians in sensing that it was a momentous occasion, that we stood on the brink of something special and historic.

You see, for the first time in our nation’s history, we had a competitive election on our hands, one in which the outcome was widely seen to be too close to call.

When the results were finally announced in the wee hours of Monday morning, it turned out that Barisan Nasional had once again been returned to power, albeit with a reduced majority.

This would have come as a relief to some and shock or disappointment to others, not least those who had predicted that Barisan would sweep to a two-thirds majority in Parliament and those who had dreamed of a Pakatan Rakyat victory.

Nevertheless, although there was no change in government, the fact that there was a chance of that happening is, I believe, a significant development for democracy in Malaysia.

For the past 56 years since independence (50 for Sarawak and Sabah), there has never been a change in power at Federal level.

For every Malaysian, the Alliance and later Barisan government is all we have ever known.

The previous 12 elections hardly did anything to challenge the status quo; in fact, you could predict a Barisan victory beforehand everytime. But GE13 was different. A strong challenge from Pakatan, coupled with a better educated, more demanding urban electorate, meant that the opposition had a fighting chance which they didn’t have before.

The upshot is that no coalition should be able to take victory for granted, just as they should no longer take voters for granted.

Instead, they will have to work hard at winning over and maintaining support by coming up with better policies, plans and vision for the nation, which can only be good for democracy in the long run.

Regardless of the outcome, we did make history by turning out in record numbers to vote last Sunday. The final turnout was 84.84% or 12,992,661 out of 13.3 million registered voters, the highest ever in any election.

That’s how many of us cared to make our voice heard at the ballot box.

It shows that many, many Malaysians care about what’s happening in our country, who want to participate in the democratic process of choosing our representatives and have a say in what kind of government we want.

Again, this provides hope for the future that we will not be apathetic but remain interested and involved in politics, because the power to decide the government lies in our hands.

Of course, it goes without saying that we need to exercise this power with all due wisdom and consideration.

The election results will need much in-depth analysis for us to understand the dynamics of Malaysia’s political landscape.

It’s therefore extremely disheartening and disturbing to see the outcome being blamed along racial lines and all the racist remarks this has engendered.

Much has already been said about how this is a wrong interpretation of the results and that many socioeconomic and geographic factors were involved.

Indeed, if any kind of divide was indicated by the results, it was an urban-rural one, with urban areas and cities largely going to Pakatan while rural constituencies remained with Barisan.

Both sides need to acknowledge and address this for the next election.

Moreover, what the results show is an urgent need for electoral reform.

I’m not talking about indelible ink or the allegations of phantom voters and missing or extra ballot boxes.

No, it’s much more fundamental than that.

We can no longer ignore the fact that our parliamentary constituencies are grossly disproportionate, which in turn means that the playing field is not level. You just have to look at the popular vote to realise this. At parliamentary level, Barisan won 5,237,699 votes in total compared to 5,623,984 for Pakatan.

In other words, Barisan lost the popular vote, 47.38% to Pakatan’s 50.87%. Yet it was able to form the government with 60% of the seats.

The reason for this is the massive discrepancy in the size of parliamentary constituencies. The biggest constituency in the country is Kapar with 144,159 voters.

That’s nine times the size of Putrajaya, the smallest, which has only 15,791 voters. Here’s another example that’s closer to home.

In Sarawak, the lowest number of votes needed to win a seat was 8,046 by Barisan’s Aaron Ago Dagang in Kanowit.

In contrast, DAP’s Julian Tan polled 41,663 votes for victory in Stampin — enough to win Kanowit five times over.

Electoral reform has to begin with redelineating the constituencies to be more proportionate in terms of voter numbers.

Only then will the playing field be more level and the overall results of elections a more accurate reflection of the will of the majority.

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