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Hurdles for local govt elections

THE promise by the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) to have local government elections has been made yet again, this time by their politicians from Perak. The PR in Penang made a similar pledge during one of the state assembly sittings, while the PR in Selangor has largely kept mum about the manifesto.

Hurdles (Pic by Foxtongue @ Flickr)
Perhaps it is time to have a little reality check about the hurdles that lie in the way of implementing local government elections. For unless the PR can address these in detail, its promises for local government elections may just be an oft-repeated promise.

Legalities and machinery

The Local Government Act 1976 states that councillors are to be appointed by the state government. This is the first legal impediment that prevents elections. The Act also suspends the Local Government Elections Act 1960, which was the law that governed how local council elections were to be held.

With a national law that specifically prohibits such local government elections, it is inconceivable that the Election Commission would support any move to reinstate local government elections.

This means that the elections would have to be done at the respective state’s expense and this would include the cost of mobilising the machinery to conduct such an election. This also means that the local government elections cannot be held at the same time as the general election for state and parliamentary seats.

Since the state government has to conduct the elections themselves, there must be rules and regulations in place that are acceptable to the contesting parties. These rules must be transparent and accountable. From the voter roll to those who are tasked with scrutinising the voting process, all these details will have to be hammered out. Thus far, however, no political party has unveiled a set of rules that would enable local government elections to be conducted.

Cost and integrity

The above issues are related to what the state government must overcome in order to hold local government elections. There are other issues that would affect the exercise’s overall integrity that also need to be addressed.

Running an election campaign is not cheap. There are cost factors to consider like printing manifesto leaflets and the renting of stage space and sound systems.

With the high cost of running for office, a person’s integrity in running would be questioned. This is especially since a councillor’s official remuneration for urban city councils is only RM750 per month, plus RM150 for every official meeting they attend.

Is the person really running for office, or is he or she doing so because there are other “benefits” that come with the position? Should remuneration be raised accordingly to ensure that the election winner is compensated for the expensive election exercise?

Losing control

(Pic by sxygsy /
There are several arguments against holding local government elections that I have come across. The first is that non-Malay Malaysians outnumber Malay Malaysians in urban areas, thereby risking the reduction of Malay Malaysians who can serve in urban local councils.

There is also the fear that the state government would lose control of the local council. A state government controlled by one political faction could find themselves in a quandary should the majority of councillors voted in come from an opposing faction.

It should be noted that these arguments are derived from the fact that Malaysian politicians still resort to the patronage system to ensure that their constituent’s problems are solved. Implementing a system that could potentially sever the feudalistic relationship between the local council and the state government may be unacceptable for some.

For sure, these issues are largely urban problems. It is much easier to keep track of an election for a small village with only a few hundred voters, compared to a city like Petaling Jaya, where there are almost 600,000 residents.

Still, unless these issues are addressed, the promise of local government elections will continue being a promise that is repeated election after election. Of course, if our parliamentarians suddenly wish to make the necessary changes to the Local Government Act and enable these elections to be held once more, then everything I have raised will be moot.

KW Mak supports local government elections, but believes the nitty-gritty details have to be ironed out first.

See also:
Politicians and local councils

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6 Responses to “Hurdles for local govt elections”

  1. Shawn Tan says:

    None of these are show-stoppers. They can definitely be overcome with the right will.

    Local elections can and should be held at mid-term. It is a good idea to hold it at mid-term as it can provide a form of feedback and allow the political parties to gauge the response from the people – sort of like a mid-term review. Not holding it in sync with national and state elections is actually a good thing.

    As for the voter roll, local elections involve people locally – voter eligibility should be based on resident address, rather than official address (the one held by SPR). Anyone who can produce proof that he/she is resident in the area (e.g. by producing a credit card statement or utility bill) should be eligible to vote in the area.

    The cost of the actual election itself is something shouldered by the state government. There is something called ‘cukai pintu’ and this should be one of the reasons to pay local taxes.

    The campaign cost is something that is shouldered by the political parties. That is a problem for the political parties, not relevant to the local council elections. If they are unable to run, they should just stay away from the elections or run leaner campaigns (e.g. by exploiting technology) with less wastage.

    If a state government loses control of the local councils, that is a good thing. It is democracy in action. This is the same signal sent when the federal government loses control of the state governments. The government will need to improve itself, otherwise it will lose even more later.

  2. KW Mak says:

    @ Shawn Tan

    I never said the reasons I gave were show stoppers, just that they have to be addressed in detail. For example, your solution for voter roll addresses the voter’s ability to vote, but doesn’t address the issue of the candidate.

    With 97.2 sq km of PJ, how do you divide the candidates who offer themselves for office – do they have specific areas or does the whole of PJ vote for them and the 24 candidates with the highest votes go in? Or do you have a delineation exercise – in which case you would then have to identify which address goes to which candidate.

    As for the cost borne by the political party, the BN may be able to afford that, but certainly not Pakatan Rakyat reps. In the last election, all the PR reps paid out of their own pockets to finance the campaign (which was also the reason why you see PR candidates handing out the donation box).

    Also, would having a campaign prevent most non-government organisations from having a representative in the local council, or would we suggest that these organisations raise money from their members to enable their candidate to run?

    And as for your final point, it is precisely that reason that the state government doesn’t want to hold these elections. Why waste money on an exercise that could potentially cripple your ability to run the state?

    Again, I will reiterate the point that there are a lot of details that must be looked into before local government elections can be implemented by a state government.

  3. Kamal says:

    Spot on! But as yet, the PR has not explained the mechanisms to put local elections into practice. Nevertheless, for all the challenges you mentioned, it has to be done. As for possible corruption, the whole point of it is to have check and balances, where contesting parties are empowered at different levels can alternate as watchdogs.

    But equally important is that this may lead the way to having more power centred around states, rather than what we have now: a strong federal government (a long-winded approach to arriving at decentralisation). The federal/state/local government distinctions can be fantastic mechanisms to check one another. It will make democracy less predictable, but hopefully over time more representational of people.

    We often hear talk of the fear that the minority will dominate the majority, but in truth we are all minorities. Ethnicity cannot be an effective political issue. Ethnic politics is absolutely an emotional discourse and cannot be use as a measurement of progressive change.

    I think the last five decades should have been enough to teach us that. We all have the same complaints: the increasing costs of living, poor public transport services, poor public service, a perception that crime (or at least crime opportunists) is on the rise, a decline in education standards in the public institutions, growing ethnic polarisation, etc. How is talking about ethnic rights going to improve all these?

    We are made to feel that you voted your party in because they will protect our ethnic and cultural rights, but we all still end up with the same problem: garbage not collected, poor drainage and seasonal flooding, university ratings not what they once were, a shrinking green lung in our cities, the rivers polluted, etc. We should realise that the pressure groups we need are issue-driven, and [our leaders need] to address multiple issues raised by minority interests …

    Having minority voices heard is not the death to majority rights; it simply means the political instruments of representation have become more sensitive and finely tuned.

  4. Kamal says:

    To iron out the nitty-gritty isn’t as difficult as you make it out to be. We’ve had local elections before, and local elections are being carried out in other countries. It is not like the PR will be reinventing the wheel. What the PR needs to do is to look at how others have done it and come up with a working proposal for Malaysia.

    The one major hurdle as you mention is that state’s will have to finance it, as opposed to the federal government. And, of course, they might lose the seats. I think that is a risk or sacrifice the PR governments have to make in order to show it is sincere. After all, wasn’t reviving local elections part of their campaign promise? It would not look good if all they have in defence for not instituting it is that the federal government doesn’t want to sokong.

  5. Shawn Tan says:

    @KW Mak — I didn’t address it all because I would end up writing an article, not a comment. =)

    For the candidate, anyone who wishes and is eligible to run should be allowed to run, just like MPs. Whether or not the candidate is clean or corrupt should not be a criterion in running. Let the voters be the judge of who is the best to represent them — that’s the whole point.

    With regards to the mechanism, like you suggested, it is possible to do it in various ways — top 20, delineated, or even a la Malaysian Idol knockouts. I don’t see why everyone has to use one specific method since none of the methods are tamper-proof. In fact, it might be better to have different methods used for different council elections — it might make things more difficult to [set up].

    As for the issue of the NGOs, there are many mechanisms that can be tested. For example, one could set aside a number of seats for NGOs, which is being done today, and allow them to compete with other candidates running on the NGO ticket for these seats.

    As for “why waste money on an exercise that could potentially cripple your ability to run the state?” — it is the peoples’ democratic right that has been taken away. It is not a choice for politicians to restore it.

  6. ong says:

    Local government elections are a [fundamental] right of the people since the people’s will is the ultimate reference in any democracy. Your article … says it all: the elected state government [would] not necessarily [be] the favorite in local government elections! The state governments are basically usurping the power that rightfully belongs to local residents.

    As to the legal hindrance: [what is stopping the appointment] of really competitive councillors produced, [for instance,] by popularity polls in local areas a la an Idol competition? The state governments are not doing it because they still want to reward their supporters with councillors’ positions! Just a copycat of the BN.

    The people should continue to pressure the state governments to return the local government to them. It belongs to them … to us, really!

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