Twin stains on our electoral system

THE just ended political drama of GE15 has yet again thrown the spotlight on the twin blights of the country's electoral system.

Since the 1970s the system has been flawed by the blatant gerrymandering of parliamentary and state constituencies and the disproportionate sizes of urban and state constituencies.

“Gerrymandering” is a 210-year-old term used to describe the carving up of constituencies to gain electoral advantage for a political party. It was created after the Boston Globe newspaper published a cartoon in 1812 depicting an imaginary species of forked-tongue monster named “Gerry-mander”. The creature, based on the contorted voting district in Massachusetts, United States, drawn up by the ruling Jeffersonian Republican party, was shaped like a salamander. It was named such after governor Elbridge Gerry approved its grotesque outline.

But the insidious practice of twisting electoral consistencies is much older than that. In 18th century England, politicians were already creating polling districts with fewer eligible voters to enable easier vote buying for seats in Parliament.

In Malaysia, gerrymandering and malapportionment of seats have been the norm over the decades, undermining the fairness of Malaysia’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) means of electing political representatives.

As such, huge gaps remain in the ratio of population sizes of parliamentary and state seats between urban and rural constituencies.

And the chasm is widening with each general election, with the tendency of voters in the rural Malay heartland to veer towards political parties championing racial and religious causes.

For older Malaysians who grew up in a very different nation compared with what it is today, the dream of seeing a progressive, prosperous and harmonious Malaysia in their lifetimes has all but faded.

It cannot be denied that the glaringly disproportional distribution of representatives has contributed to the slide in nation-building.

The unfair practice of confining the largest possible number of potential Opposition voters into one huge constituency and keeping potentially pro-government voters in disparately smaller seats with more weightage cannot go on unchallenged.

There is a dire need for electoral reforms, perhaps even reviewing the FPTP system. It does not manifest true representation of the people but results in ballots in some constituencies having much more weight than others in spite of their much smaller numbers of voters.

To use an example, Selangor’s Bangi parliamentary constituency is the largest in the country with 303,430 voters but is represented by one Member of Parliament.

Sarawak’s Igan constituency, which has only 28,290 voters, is also represented by one MP, making it 10.7 times more politically influential than Bangi.

This is certainly a long way off from democracy’s basic theory of fair representation, never mind the ideal one-person-one vote principle, originally enshrined under Article 116 of the Federal Constitution after independence in 1957.

Article 116 (4) provided that the number of voters in each constituency be roughly equal, albeit giving exceptions for the distribution of communities, differences in population density and means of communications, but stipulated that the variance should not be more than 15%.

This, however, was repealed in 1962, and the rules covering constituency re-delineations were transferred to a new section of the law called the Thirteenth Schedule.

Section 2 of the Thirteenth Schedule provided that the number of voters within each constituency ought to be approximately equal but with greater difficulty of reaching electors in the rural districts and other disadvantages in rural constituencies.

It also provided for a measure of weightage for areas to be given to such constituencies “to the extent that in some cases a rural constituency may constitute as little as one half of the electors of any urban constituency”.

Under another amendment in 1973, the words “to the extent that in some cases a rural constituency may constitute as little as one half of the electors of any urban constituency” were removed, enabling the Election Commission to fix weightage as it deemed fit for rural constituencies. This was the start of the malapportionment.

A simple comparison between the number of parliamentary seats for the largely urban Selangor and the mostly rural Sarawak exposes the stark anomaly today.

Selangor, which has a population of seven million, has 22 parliamentary seats while Sarawak with 2.5 million people, has 31 seats – 8.8 times more.

The disparity is also reflected in the comparison with the number of seats won by the competing coalitions and proportion of popular vote share.

In GE15, Pakatan Harapan – which comprises DAP, PKR, Amanah and Muda – won the lion’s share of 82 seats by securing 5,823,931 votes, or 37.97%. In contrast, Perikatan Nasional – comprising Bersatu, PAS, Gerakan and the Sabah-based STAR and SAPP parties – won 73 seats with 4,638,697 votes or 30.24%, despite getting 1,185,234 fewer votes than Pakatan.

Umno and its partners in Barisan Nasional – MCA, MIC and PBRS – which garnered 3,438,369 votes (22.42%), won 30 seats. As for GPS (Gabungan Parti Sarawak), it won 22 seats with 644,202 votes (4.2%) while Warisan won three seats by getting 275,779 votes (1.8%).

Nine years ago, Kai Ostwald, currently associate professor at the School of Public Policy & Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, Canada, pointed out that Malaysia had among the highest levels of malapportionment in the world. Malaysia’s level of disproportioned seats sits up there along with Zambia and Ghana, he says.

“This is not, contrary to occasional claims, an inherent function of the FTPT system itself, as other countries which employ the system – including the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Singapore, the Philippines, and India – all have significantly lower levels of malapportionment,” he wrote in research paper titled How to Win a Lost Election: Malapportionment and Malaysia’s 2013 General Election.

Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote by Will Rogers: ‘Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.’

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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