Corrected on 20 Mar 2014 at 11.15am
IN 2008, both the DAP and PKR made local council elections one of their campaign promises for the general election. To make good on their promise, Penang passed the Local Government Elections (Penang Island and Province Wellesley) Enactment 2012. However, Penang was told that the Election Commission (EC) would not run these elections for them. In response, the state took the federal government to court to compel it to get the EC to run the elections. The case will be heard on 9 April 2014.
Meanwhile, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) government in Selangor conducted a study in 2009 that provided three suggestions on how to bypass the federal government’s jurisdiction. Those recommendations were, however, never adopted. More recently, the Selangor government announced that a bill would be introduced this year to enable local government elections, but details have been scant.
The six-year-old promise to hold local government elections appears to be making slow progress. In the meantime, the Coalition for Good Governance has accused the PR of non-transparency in the appointment of councillors. What exactly is the problem with local council elections that it is taking so long to implement? And why is there so much secrecy surrounding the appointment of councillors?
No selection method
Former state executive councillor Ronnie Liu cites “the lack of procedures” in selecting councillors as the reason some areas in PJ still don’t have councillors representing them. He explained the appointment process as follows:
Liu said the parties and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) would have to be informed first before selecting a new batch of councillors.
“They will then put forward recommendations for candidates.”
If the system is as Liu describes, it only shows that NGOs can only apply for the position if they are first invited to do so. In fact, the only NGOs which are asked to submit a nomination for a councillor’s position are those chosen by the Selangor government. This usually means PR-friendly NGOs. Those who are seen to be Barisan Nasional-friendly or who are too critical don’t get asked.
Liu is also not telling the full story. Under the present appointment system, all councillors from the political parties are chosen by the local DAP, PAS and PKR division heads. These divisions are usually chaired or controlled in some capacity by the elected representatives of the area. The political parties then meet to present their respective choices to each other as a matter of formality.
There’s really no paperwork involved in this system. No list of requirements or an application process. When I was appointed a councillor for Petaling Jaya in 2008, the names of those who were to be appointed were submitted on a sheet of paper to the state exco in charge of local councils. That list of names was then handed over to the menteri besar to make it official.
Indeed, the Local Government Act only states that the power to appoint a councillor is vested with the menteri besar. It also describes in brief a councillor’s functions and the characteristics that person should have, but it doesn’t detail the selection method.
This is why the system is hardly transparent. At the same time, a seat in the local council is often deemed a stepping stone to being selected as a state or parlimentary election candidate. Hence, competition can be intense for the ambitious, resulting in some amount of horse-trading and lobbying in the appointment of councillors.
This system also means that if a councillor gets out of line, she or he can be easily replaced with another local councillor who is more willing to toe the line. And since councillors are easily replaced, it’s no surprise that small political parties like Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) are destined to be sidelined.
PSM was allocated a total of three councillor positions in the Petaling Jaya, Subang Jaya and Shah Alam councils in 2008 and 2009. The lack of any transparent process in the appointment of councillors thwarted PSM in 2010, and the seats were instead quickly snapped up by PKR.
In my opinion, even though the appointment system appears messy, the PR is in no hurry to replace it with local council elections. One of the problems with the promise of local council elections is this: PAS has in fact expressed reluctance for the return of local elections even though it formed a special committee to study it in 2010.
For PAS to support it would mean implementing it in Kelantan. That is something PAS does not seem prepared to do. Indeed, PAS has been in power in the east coast state since 1990, but it has done nothing to implement local council elections there.
From my observations, PAS also fears that they will not have representation in local councils in urban areas if there were elections. Penang, Petaling Jaya and Subang Jaya have a population that is predominantly Chinese Malaysian. And if candidates are elected along racial lines, there would be a lot more non-Muslim Chinese than Muslim Malays in these local councils.
In fact, even though they are a coalition, all three parties in the PR would want leverage in the local councils in case they need to outvote the others on an issue they disagree on. For example, the DAP would not want an Islamic ruling, like the prohibition of alcohol sales, affecting non-Muslims. Hence, it would be important to each party to have extra representation within the local councils.
Amidst the conflict of interest and with PAS not supportive of local council elections, it’s questionable if the PR is going to be able to push forward local council elections.
Indeed, the biggest tell-tale sign that a government will implement something is to have that item budgeted for. “Local council elections” is currently not on the budget for Selangor, Penang or Kelantan. In order to have that budget, detailed paperwork on how the elections would be carried out has to be tabled. This would include drawing up the boundaries, creating a voter list, hiring temporary staff to carry out the elections, printing ballot papers and supplying the necessary equipment.
To be fair, it may be premature for Selangor and Penang to allocate any budget for local council elections without first being certain they would not be thwarted by the federal government. Still, the point is, running an election is expensive. And it’s shrewd of Penang to try to get the federal government to instead spend the money through its enactment and the lawsuit against the federal government.
It’s clear that, administratively and politically, the PR faces several obstacles in implementing local council elections. And so, while the DAP and PKR continue to make statements about implementing local elections, it’s going to be much harder to actually deliver on those promises.
Former MBPJ councillor KW Mak believes it is important for voters to seek details from politicians about their promises. These details would show whether a politician has the means to fulfill a promise or not.