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The Election Commission’s secret

Ballot box at the entrance of the Election Commission

AS expected, the Election Commission (EC) said “no” to the idea of local elections mooted by the Penang and Selangor governments. Perhaps the EC is taking its cue from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who is dead against “politicking“, the derogatory term for political competition.

I would argue that the EC actually has an institutional interest not to have local elections. Why? Because it would expose one aspect of their great disservice to Malaysia: gerrymandering.

Russian dolls

Before I explain how gerrymandering has made a mess out of local governments in Malaysia, perhaps some background is in order.

Our current two-tier electoral structure is designed like a set of Russian dolls. No parliamentary constituency should cut across a state boundary, and no state constituency should cross the boundaries between parliamentary constituencies. They must all fit neatly inside one another, from bottom to top.

In other words, our 13 states each has a set of three Russian dolls: the overall state boundary, the parliamentary constituencies within the state, and the state constituencies within each parliamentary constituency. The three Federal Territories each has a set of two Russian dolls: the overall territory boundary, and the parliamentary constituencies within it.

This neat design is meant to serve two purposes:

It allows the electorate to be organised into a single electoral roll for both federal and state elections. If any state constituency was allowed to cross the parliamentary constituency boundaries, two electoral rolls would be needed if federal and state elections were held simultaneously.

It allows the Barisan Nasional (BN) to organise its political leadership neatly: the menteri besar or chief minister leads the parliamentarians in his or her state, while each parliamentarian leads the state assemblypersons in his or her constituency.

Even though parliamentarians are federal legislators, thus being from a different political “system” than state premiers and assemblypersons, this Russian doll arrangement between federal and state lawmakers is rational.

It is also reasonable to assume that the constituents in any given state constituency share a common set of political interests, which may have to be addressed separately at state and federal levels.

Let’s say state constituency a1 is part of parliamentary constituency A. and the locals in a1 are facing problems with both land title and healthcare. They should therefore approach a1’s state representative for the land issue, and A’s parliamentarian for the healthcare issue.

However, if a1 cuts across the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies A, B and C, then the locals and perhaps a1’s state representative would have to coordinate with the parliamentarians from A, B and C on the healthcare issue.

Missing Russian dolls

Now, what happens to the Russian dolls if we want to have local elections with the same, single electoral roll?

Ideally, then, we would have a set of five Russian dolls: the overall state boundary, the local authorities within it, the parliamentary constituencies within each local authority, the state constituency within each parliamentary constituency, and the local ward (constituency) within each state constituency.

Thus, a local authority might have one or more parliamentarians serving it, but no parliamentarian should serve more than one local authority. Similarly, a state constituency would consist of a few local wards, but no local ward should be located across more than one state constituency.

And so, to revive local elections, couldn’t we just divide existing state constituencies into smaller, elected local wards?

The answer is no.

Consider the case of Bukit Lanjan. This state constituency is spread across two local authorities: Majlis Bandaraya Petaling Jaya (MBPJ) and Majlis Perbandaran Selayang. Another state seat, Sri Muda, sprawls across three local authorities: Majlis Perbandaran Klang, Majlis Bandaraya Shah Alam and Majlis Perbandaran Subang Jaya.

These state constituencies would have to be carved into local wards for two or three different local authorities. On top of that, some of these wards might end up being too small.

And why would this happen? The answer: gerrymandering.

                                   Russian dolls (Pic by filax /
Electoral districts should in principle be political communities sharing common interests. Since local authorities determine the quality of local public service, their borders should be a key determinant of the electoral boundaries.

However, we have not had local elections since 1964, and so the EC has had a free hand in drawing and redrawing constituency boundaries.

Thus, reintroducing local elections would entail redelineating parliamentary and state constituencies to make them correspond with local authority boundaries.

So let’s say the Penang and Selangor state governments are willing to amend state laws to force local elections on the EC. Unless this move is somehow declared unconstitutional, the EC would have to redraw a three-tier electoral map in the next redelineation exercise, which could begin in March 2011.

Constrained by the local authority boundaries, the pathological gerrymandering that has protected the BN so far would then have to be rolled back. The BN’s systemic cheating via the EC’s tampering with the electoral map would then be too obvious to escape citizens’ eyes.

“No politicking”

For conspiracy theorists, the reason for not having local elections is probably more evil than gerrymandering. It is to prevent the appearance of a meaningful three-tier government system so that federal and state lawmakers can be sucked into firefighting and pork-barrel allocations as a result of dysfunctional local governance.

To begin with, many Malaysians do not realise we actually have two sets of “local governments”: local authorities, such as the MBPJ, and administrative districts, such as Daerah Petaling.

Hence, at the sub-state level, there are three sets of divisions: parliamentary and state constituencies, local authorities, and administrative districts — and their boundaries often criss-cross. For example, the Bukit Lanjan state constituency also serves two administrative districts: Petaling and Gombak.

Three sets of sub-state division, but only one is elected — the other two are largely dysfunctional

Local authorities collect assessment rates and other local taxes and provide local public services. Administrative districts, headed by district officers (DOs), manage land matters, coordinate federal and state agencies at the district level, and administer federal and state funding.

Why can’t the two be merged so that local development can be better planned, coordinated and implemented within one single local government unit? The reason for having two sets of “local governments” seems to be that they provide different roles for BN politicians at different levels.

Local authorities are generally filled with junior BN politicians, and occasionally by BN state assemblypersons. Meanwhile, BN state assemblypersons and parliamentarians may sit in district-level planning panels, or direct the DO to approve infrastructure projects and spending for their constituencies.

Therefore, the most important “benefit” of not having elected local authorities and administrative districts — “no politicking” — is that parliamentarians and state assemblypersons can continue serving as the locals’ intermediaries in resource allocation and bureaucratic mitigation. This, in turn, would divert the lawmakers from actually debating and determining national and state policies.

The dysfunction of local government is so serious that if elected local governments could become efficient and responsive, the state governments might become hollow and redundant.

Take Penang, for example. The second smallest state by area, Penang has 40 state assemblypersons, and both its municipalities have 48 councilors in total.

If local elections were held in Penang, an average local ward would be about the same size as a state constituency. Now, if the elected local councilors were empowered to solve most of the local problems, would the electorate really need the state assemblypersons, and, by derivation, the state government?

We cannot do away the states as distinctive political units, not least because they are the embodiment of Malaysia’s Malay monarchy.

(Pic by chrischappelear @ Flickr)
To keep the states relevant with functioning local governments, more power would have to be transferred from the federal government to the state authorities. In other words, local elections, if implemented, would amplify calls for decentralisation and federalism.

So, any wonder why so many politicians — from the BN and some from the Pakatan Rakyat, too — oppose or just pay lip service to this Pandora’s box called local elections?

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. He thinks Najib’s Government Transformation Programme would be the joke of the decade if he insists on keeping a dysfunctional local governance structure.

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3 Responses to “The Election Commission’s secret”

  1. Pratamad says:

    Thanks for educating the rakyat on these key issues of national interests. Many people, myself included, are not aware of the governance structure and the dysfunction of local governments.

    And you put it most aptly: “BN’s systemic cheating via the EC’s tampering with the electoral map”. What a SECRET!

    And all those politicians, Najib especially, who express local elections are simply confirming themselves as politicians with self-interests over those of the rakyat and Malaysia.

  2. Eric says:

    This article is vintage Chin Huat. Not that I am particularly bright, but I consistently failed to see the third-tier election issue under the angle of exposing the EC’s gerrymandering. Your demonstration is so sharp, it is incisive; just like your “Will PAS turn blue?”, which still has me shaking in bewilderment. It explained so clearly the evolution PAS has undergone to become the national party we now know.

  3. Wu Ling says:

    In Indonesia, our neighbouring country, regional decentralisation has been implemented in 2001 and local direct elections (pemilihan kepala daerah langsung, or pilkada) were held for the first time in 2005. According to scholars who study local politics in Indonesia such as Vedi R. Hadiz (2010), Nankyung Choi (2009) and Syarif Hidayat (2009), the introduction of local direct elections does not bring an expanded popular participation or a stronger civil society in regional Indonesia.

    Due to the absence of effective, genuinely reformist forces, local politics are “captured” by old (as well as some new) predatory politico-business interests that managed to reinvent and consolidate themselves in the new political vehicles and institutions, on one hand, and the marginalisation of popular participation, on the other.

    As the majority of voters still do not fully understand the importance of political participation in local direct elections, it is certain that most of them would tend to base their political decision more on pragmatic considerations; for instance, what material benefits could be obtained directly from the candidates for local government head, and who and what are the societal figures the candidates are affiliated with.

    Consequently, money politics become an important tool in the effort to mobilise the constituents and to buy votes. In other words, money politics have become a notable feature of local direct elections in Indonesia. Political newcomers who genuinely promote reforms and do not associate with predatory networks often find themselves constrained in what they are able to achieve. Most of them are academics and activists from various non-governmental organisations (NGOs). They have little choice but to latch onto existing coalitions with more established financial resources and an apparatus of violence for their own survival in political contestations.

    If there is any chance for local direct elections to be held in Malaysia, my only hope is that it will not be like what happen in Indonesia. And I strongly believe that more efforts need to be put on educating our voters on the importance of local direct elections.

    References cited:

    Choi, Nankyung. “Democracy and Patrimonial Politics in Local Indonesia”. Indonesia 88 (October 2009): 131-164.

    Hadiz, Vedi R. Localising Power in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia: A Southeast Asia Perspective. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

    Hidayat, Syarif. “Pilkada, Money Politics and the Dangers of ‘Informal Governance’ Practices”. In Deepening Democracy in Indonesia? Direct Elections for Local Leaders (Pilkada), ed. Maribeth Erb and Priyambudi Sulistiyanto. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009, pp. 125-146.

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