IF rumour holds true, the 13th general election, due by March 2013, will be held sometime this year. Once again, Malaysians will cast their votes and the party that wins the most number of parliamentary seats will govern federally.
But how legitimate is the government that eventually gets into power? Does the party in power actually have the support of a majority of Malaysians? And if not, what can be done to make our democracy better?
8 March results
Let’s look at Malaysia’s 12th general election, held on 8 March 2008. Of the 10.9 million registered voters, about 70% cast their ballots. Barisan Nasional (BN) won 51.39% of those votes and took 140 out of 222 parliamentary seats. Pakatan Rakyat (PR) took 47.79% of the votes and 82 parliamentary seats.
However, about 30% of the 10.9 million registered voters did not vote. If we take them into account, BN only has the support of 35.97% of all registered voters, and PR 33.45%.
If we include the approximately four million Malaysians of voting age who did not register to vote, BN’s actual support drops to only 26.31%. PR’s support would be only 24.47%.
What does this say of the legitimacy of the BN government’s right to wield political power? Indeed, the number of Malaysians who did not register to vote constitutes 26.84% of all those eligible to vote. So each of the two political coalitions won less popular support than the total number of Malaysians aged 21 and above who did not register to vote.
The running of the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur is a good example of where the legitimacy of government can be questioned. Although PR won 10 out of 11 parliamentary seats in Kuala Lumpur, no PR representative sits on Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur’s (DBKL) advisory board. This board has been appointed by the federal government since the city of Kuala Lumpur was established in 1972.
None of the present 13 advisory board members has any popular mandate from the people of Kuala Lumpur to advise the Datuk Bandar in running the city’s administration. For that matter, neither does the Datuk Bandar, as he is also a federal government appointee.
Datuk Lim Si Pin of Gerakan is the only advisory board member who contested in Kuala Lumpur in the 2008 elections. He obtained 20,330 votes in the Batu seat, where he lost to Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s Tian Chua. This constitutes 4.08% of total votes cast throughout Kuala Lumpur. With only the support of 4.08% of Kuala Lumpur, Lim is nonetheless able to exert influence on the governance of Kuala Lumpur citizens in a way that none of the elected PR representatives can.
Overall, of the 497,741 votes successfully cast for all candidates in the 11 Kuala Lumpur parliamentary constituencies, PR obtained 308,377 while BN secured 188,875. In terms of percentage, PR gained the support of about 62% of voting KL-ites as opposed to BN’s 38%.
In the light of these statistics, the BN’s complete control of the administration of Kuala Lumpur is a travesty of democracy and flies in the face of the declared intent of its voting citizenry.
Return local government elections
One sure way to ensure better representation would be to reinstate local government elections.
To be fair, Lim has said that even he, as an advisory board member, is scantly respected by DBKL staff. Speaking at a 10 Feb 2012 Centre for Public Policy Studies forum on the next general election and its impact, he said DBKL staff recognise the anomaly of his situation and fail to pay him any heed. He has thus repeated his party’s own call for the return of local government elections, the only BN component party to have done so.
The reason may be two-fold. Gerakan could genuinely believe in local democracy. After all, it has its origins in the streets and neighbourhoods of Penang, and its support of local democracy may hark back to halcyon days of its glorious past. Reintroducing local government elections may also be the only way the party can stave off complete annihilation as a political entity in this country.
The return of local government elections was part of PR’s manifesto in 2008, and is likely to remain so for the next general election. Since coming to power in Selangor and Penang, both state governments have launched initiatives in that direction. Penang briefly experimented with a selection exercise with civil society participation to choose potential candidates for appointment as local councillors, but then failed to appoint all the successful candidates. Rather than proceed on its own, the Penang government has announced it will take legal action against the Election Commission to force it to conduct local government elections.
The Election Commission has parroted the federal government’s position that local government elections, suspended in 1965 and totally abolished in 1976, cannot be brought back without fresh legislation in Parliament. Both Penang and Selangor take a different view of the legal position. In fact the Selangor government announced the use of elections to choose 30% of the Majlis Bandaraya Petaling Jaya’s members as an initial experiment. However, such elections will now take place only after the next general election, widely expected this year.
Both BN and PR should pay much closer attention to local government elections. It has a hidden appeal that goes beyond mere participation in local politics. If the Malaysian public decides it likes the idea of separating political power between federal and state government, it may well pursue the same in state and local government relations. The political coalition that ends up losing a state election could nonetheless remain relevant if it were to win seats contested in local government elections, if the latter were reintroduced. This would prevent a total shut-out from government and allow it to continue to wield political power and influence.
Andrew Khoo is an advocate and solicitor in private practice, and an aspiring columnist and commentator.