ELECTORAL SYSTEMS: MALAYSIA VS THE WORLD by Jun Long Goh

Illustration by The Seattle Times.

On the 7th of April 2018, the Malaysian Parliament was officially dissolved. Soon, we Malaysian will hold our 14th General Election.

How do we elect our Members of Parliament (MPs)? And how do other countries elect theirs? Different democracies [1] use different electoral rules, which can significantly affect the outcome. There is often a presumption that there is only one way of electing our MPs, or one way that democracy can work. Differences between democracies are often thought of as minor and insignificant. But peer closely, and one would find a rift of difference in how democracies operate.

Why is it important to know the existence of these varieties? Comparing and contrasting between democracies allows us as citizens to know what electoral system exists and to make judgements on what will work best. Thus, in this article, I will be introducing you to three major varieties of electoral system, which were hopefully improve your horizons greatly.

Three different electoral systems

Political scientists usually divide electoral system into 3 major categories: the majoritarian electoral system, the proportional representation electoral system and the mixed electoral system—a combination of the first two. Even then, these categories hide many details. However, as a first approximation, they will suffice.

Before I continue, some important definitions:

“Electoral District”: A place (usually geographical) where all the votes of the voters are grouped and counted together.

“Legislature” = “Parliament”. I will be using the term legislature because the term “Parliament” has a  slightly different connotation in political science, but in essence, they mean more or less the same thing.

Malaysia – First-past-the-post majoritarian electoral system

The Malaysian electoral system is a standard example of the majoritarian electoral system. Other countries that uses this system includes the United Kingdom and the United States. The lower house of the Malaysian Parliament, the Dewan Rakyat [2] consists of 222 members of parliament. It is a single member district electoral system whereby each member of parliament represents one electoral district, and there is a separate contest for each electoral district. The candidate who obtains the most votes in the electoral district wins the parliament seat.

When there are only two candidates, the candidate who wins the seat must have obtain more than 50% of the votes . This is the origin of the name for the electoral system—the majority wins. However, this name is a misnomer—if there are more than two candidates, the candidate may not need to win 50% of the vote to obtain the vote. (For instance: Candidate 1 obtains 40% of the votes, Candidate 2 and Candidate 3 each 30% of the votes, Candidate 1 wins). Therefore, some political scientists prefer to call this a plurality electoral system.

What are the effects of the first-past-the-post single member district majoritarian electoral system? One effect  is disproportionality—when the vote share of the party does not correspond to seat share of the party in the legislative house. (For example: Last Malaysian General Elections: Barisan Nasional [VS: 47.38%, SS: 60%]; Pakatan Rakyat [VS: 50.87%, SS: 40%]). Another effect is the risk of gerrymandering—whereby politicians draw electoral district lines in such a way that it favours their own political party.

Netherlands and South Africa – Proportional representation (PR) electoral system

The Netherlands and the South Africa electoral systems represent two slightly different PR electoral system. The Netherlands uses an open list PR electoral system whereas South Africa uses a closed list PR system.

Unlike the majoritarian electoral system, which awards the seat to the one with the most votes in a particular electoral district, the PR electoral system awards the seats based on the vote share of the parties. Of course, in a one-seat electoral district, we cannot possible divide the seats, no matter electoral system. Thus, for the PR electoral system, it usually consists of one single electoral district across the whole country which allocates all the legislature seats by percentage of votes. (For example: A 100 seat legislature. Party A wins 50% of the votes, Party B wins 30% of the votes, Party C wins 20% of the votes. They obtain 50, 30 and 20 seats respectively.) In such a system, voters vote for party lists—a ranked list of the party’s candidates instead of single candidates. The votes for the parties are summed up and seats are allocated based on the percentage of votes. (Note: The lists are ranked). Continuing the earlier example, the first 50 candidates, the first 30 candidates and the first 20 candidates of the party list of Party A, Party B and Party C respectively are elected into the legislature.

South Africa differs slightly from this in that it separates its 400-seat lower house (called the National Assembly) into 200 regional seats and 200 national seats. The 200 regional seats are separated into 9 multi-member electoral districts based on the 9 provinces (with seats ranging from 5 to 48 seats for each region) Each party has a regional list for each province and a national list. When voting, the voter votes for one party in the provincial list and one party in the national list. The 200 regional seats are allocated first based on the party vote percentage in each provincial list. Then, the regional and national votes for each party is summed up, and the next 200 seats are allocated in such a way that the percentage of total votes for the party and the seats in the legislature are as similar as possible. The PR electoral system is closed list, which means that voters are not allowed to alter the ranking of the party lists. (However, they can see the lists).

In contrast, the Netherlands electoral system is open list, which means voter can alter the ranking of the candidates. In the 150-seat lower house, it is separated into 19 different electoral districts, but this separation is partly administrative. In essence, the whole country is a single electoral district. But why the administrative separation? The Netherlands has an open list, and voters can cast preference votes for a particular candidate in a party list. If the candidate obtains more than 25% of the national electoral quotient (the total number of votes cast divide by the total number of seats in the legislature), then they are immediately bumped up to the top of the list. If it was single electoral district, the open list would need to have a 150 candidates long list for each party. (And there are many parties in the Netherlands, including a Party for the Animals!). The ballot paper will be extremely complicated. The electoral laws limit the number of candidates for each party that can be placed on a ballot paper.

By its nature, (and its name), the PR electoral system leads to low electoral disproportionality. It also avoids the risk of gerrymandering. However, the party list system gives large power to the party leaders in ranking the candidates. Usually, the top of the list is elected while the bottom of the list chances of election is basically zero. In the closed list, voters cannot change the ranking, even if they do not like a certain candidate in a party that they support. Even with open list, the candidate needs to obtain a high number of preference votes to be bump up the list. Usually, those who are popular enough are ranked high in the list anyways. In addition, by having large electoral district (or even one whole national one), it breaks the link between the geographical link between a member of parliament and the voter. Party lists could be filled with candidates from urban areas, and the rural area is underrepresented.

Germany – Mixed-system — Arguably the best?

In Germany, the lower house of the Federal Parliament, the Bundestag, is elected with 299 single member district, 299 party list seats at the state level, and also additional compensatory seats. Each voter cast two votes, one for the single member district which he is in (the first vote), and one for the party list of the state he is in (the second vote)

The counting of votes into seats are done in the following way:

  1. All candidates who wins the single member districts (SMD) are elected.
  2. All parties that failed to pass the 5% threshold or win at least 3 single member districts are eliminated from the allocation of the party list seat allocation.
  3. Based on the second vote summed up at the national level, the party is allocated a certain number of seats.
  4. The number of SMD seats the party won is subtracted from the total number of allocated seats. The rests are allocated from the party list seats.
  5. If a party has more SMD seats than the number of seats it is allocated too, additional seats are added to the legislature and allocated to the other parties so that proportionality is maintained.

The German system combines the best of both worlds.

It avoids disproportionality, but retains the direct geographical link between member of Parliament and voters. There are still some weaknesses though. For example, in smaller parties who don’t get any SMD, the party list remains in the control of party delegates.

I hope that this short introduction to electoral systems around the world have helped all who have read this article to expand their horizons, and to think deeply about our Malaysian electoral system.

*For more information, fascinating (and weird) facts about electoral system around the world, the book The Politics of Electoral System is great guide. (But it can be a little technical)

References:

  • Andeweg, R. B. 2005. The Netherlands: The Sanctity of Proportionality. In: M. Gallagher, and P Mitchell, eds. The Politics of Electoral Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch. 24.
  • Gouws, A. 2005. South Africa: One Party Dominance Despite Perfect Proportionality. . In: M. Gallagher, and P Mitchell, eds. The Politics of Electoral Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch. 17.
  • Saadfald, T. 2005. Germany: Stability and Strategy in a Mixed‐Member Proportional System. In: M. Gallagher, and P Mitchell, eds. The Politics of Electoral Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch. 10.
  • Louw, V. 2014. The South African Electoral System. [online] Available at: http://hsf.org.za/resource-centre/hsf-briefs/the-south-african-electoral-system [Accessed 8 April 2018].

[1] Speaking of democracies — Is Malaysia a democracy? Even though this may seem like it has an obvious answer, it is much more difficult then it seems. Some measures of democracy suggest that we are, some say we are not (Malaysia is a borderline case). For the purpose of this essay, I will be assuming that Malaysia is a democracy, in the sense it is commonly accepted by most Malaysians as one.

[2] I exclude the upper house, the Dewan Negara from the analysis as its members are appointed. (which means electoral systems have nothing to do with it.)