On Elections: Hedging against a bigger tsunami

BN needs to democratize, not only for the best interest of the nation, but for its own survival. Below is my take published in the Sun today.

Hedging against a bigger tsunami
Wong Chin Huat
PETALING JAYA (March 18, 2008): Merely 56,822 votes – that’s how close Barisan Nasional (BN) came to losing its federal power in the wake of March 8’s electoral tsunami. BN led DAP with 51 votes in Sarikei (Sarawak), its weakest link. In its 30th weakest seat, Stampin (also Sarawak), BN’s winning margin was only 3,070 votes.

In between them were nine seats from Perak, three each from Pahang and Sabah, two each from Selangor, Kedah and Terengganu, one each from Johor, Malacca, Perlis and Putrajaya, as well as two more from Sarawak (see table 1).

The average margin for all these 30 seats was only 1,893 votes. It, therefore, takes only 1,894 votes in average to upset BN.

With the exception of Putrajaya and Hulu Rajang, the margin constitutes less than 15% of total valid votes.

This means it takes only one extra vote for every seven votes cast in the constituencies to return 28 other opposition parliamentarians and leave BN with two-seat advantage in the Parliament.

Measured in proportion of valid votes, the thinness of BN’s margin was equally shocking. It was lower than 20% in 57 seats, and less than 10% in 25 of them.

In other words, if 5% of the voters across all constituencies changed their minds from voting BN, the coalition will be left with a wafer-thin majority of 115 against the Oppposition’s 107.

However, had 10% of the voters done so, the government would be stronger with only nine seats short of a two-thirds majority. It would, however, be 139 seats for the new government of PKR, DAP, PAS and others against BN’s 83 seats, almost the exact opposite of what we have now.

How would you characterise the political change then? A mega tsunami? A comet or asteroid’s strike that may send some species into extinction?

Tsunami may be a good metaphor to visualise the scale and unexpectedness of the electoral shock. It, however, may mislead us to think that such volatility is externally-determined.

Far from that, while architecture may have little impact to arrest or moderate the impact of nature’s tidal waves, the electoral tsunami is to a large extent a product of the electoral system.

Take the Penang state legislative elections as an example. Most were shocked that BN not only lost the state government, but also the non-Malay parties were wiped out. Even the outgoing chief minister and all three of his possible successors met their Waterloo.

The electoral volatility was certainly remarkable that BN’s vote share fell by 22% from 63% to 41% while DAP’s fortune rose by 21% to 35%.

But, would you be so shocked if Umno retained seven seats, Gerakan five, MCA four and MIC two, giving BN a total of 17 seats instead of the actual 11?

That would be the outcome if the election was conducted under party-list electoral system employing the most proportionate features (see Table 2). In such system, the portion of seats held by a party is roughly equivalent to its popular vote share.

In fact, if such system was used in 2004, the shock would be further smaller: BN seats would drop only by nine from 26 to 17 with Umno losing two seats, Gerakan four, MCA three while MIC keeping its sole seat.

The example of Penang illustrates how electoral volatility of 22.2% was amplified into a political earthquake of 67.5% as BN’s seats plunged from 38 seats (95%) to 11 seats (27.5%) under our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system.

Penang in 2008 was not the first political tsunami facilitated by the electoral system. Similar swings in Kelantan in 1990 and in Terengganu in 1999 saw the literal or virtual extermination of BN in these two states.

Penang in 2008 will not be the last one. The next national elections may see greater volatility which will be further amplified by the FPTP system. The triumphant opposition today may fall lower than they did in 2004.

Equally possible is that the nationally, BN will suffer the fate of its Penang branch in 2008. The slim majority in this election shows that if the luck is not with BN, we may see a new coalition government with some 70% to 80% of parliamentary seats.

If today we lament the arrogance and unaccountability bred by BN’s parliamentary two-thirds before 2008, we must be equally worried for the similar scenario with any new government.

First-past-the-post systems are like gambles. When you win, you win big. That’s why it is favoured by the winners or winner-wannabes. But of course, when you lose, you lose big too.

Proportional electoral system – and other features of a fairer political system – is therefore valuable for multi-ethnic societies for one simple reason. Like an insurance policy, it keeps people from desperation.

While it removes undeserved windfalls – like the insurance premium – for potential winners, it also hedges against disastrous tsunamis for potential losers.

For no one will be excluded unexpectedly and unacceptably, no one needs to resort to extreme measures. Any major policy change will need extensive consultation to obtain cross-party support.

Is that not the real political stability all Malaysians and foreign investors need?

Electoral reform is often dismissed as the cause of the idealist and the naïve. Make no mistake. It is now the cause of real pragmatists.

There is one lesson everyone – especially those in power – must learn from this tsunami. Buy your insurance before the next tsunami strikes.

Wong Chin Huat is a journalism lecturer in the Arts Discipline of the School of Arts and Sciences, Monash University, Sunway campus (Malaysia). He is completing his PhD in University of Essex on electoral system and party politics in West Malaysia, 1982-2004. He is currently co-editing a book on Malaysia’s 2004 elections.


5 responses to “On Elections: Hedging against a bigger tsunami

  1. Yes! Gambling!!
    When Bersih starts, they know how many trump cards BN can place
    Even with Postal Votes (221,085) in hand, these Marginal 30 seats (56,822 Votes) can easily be played.
    When Postal Votes were not mentioned in any of the Voting results,
    Are Postal Votes not individually counted in each Constituency?
    Then, the tsunami of GE2008 cannot fight even the undercurrent of EC?

    It could also be due to the Fact that no Opposition or Blogger emphasized the importance of 1/2 Parliament Seats!!

    Why Oppositions were well aware and still let this “gambling” went ahead?
    At least one Opposition was happy with the chance of Parachuting, I guess!
    So, the Rakyats were put into “Gambling”!

    When Rakyats are still happy about the outcome, Do Oppositions aware that they might face a Tsunami themselves in GE13?
    When Oppositions had promised to Change but cannot because they do not have 1/2 of the Parliament seats?

    If Bersih or Opposition cannot dig into the problems and get those Ballot Boxes sealed for further action, any analysis can only be for research and practically open for manipulation of EC!!

    People are yet to see how Bersih will act upon EC to plug the loopholes!
    Stop calling for Petition but Act!!
    With past experiences,
    Just prove RC and Court is a Joke!
    Take it Administratively, Legally and no more campaign until GE13!
    To show Politicians do work and not always Rakyats have to work!!
    Until then, Rakyats may put full efforts in GE13!!

    Can we have answers to questions posted in https://chinhuatw.wordpress.com/2008/03/17/on-elections-how-close-was-malaysia-from-regime-change/

    Thanks “Sharing” for all the interesting thoughts shared. I am sorry that I am at the moment rather tight to respond to questions. Will do that when I am freer.

  2. I think this is an exemplary piece from you. You have made a very convincing case for PR system here, presented in the local context of Penang outcome, that all winners and losers alike will understand the need for fairer but also more stable democratic system for the country.

  3. oh mr.Huat, time for you to pressure the BA
    to hv local council election!! dont win alreadi diam diam ohhh!
    LGY very glamour now as CM!start talk cock already!
    forget about their promises!

  4. Perhaps the DAP and PKR ruled states can start introducing PR voting to the people in local council elections. Bring back local elections, but also bring in fair voting systems.

  5. MR.Huat – can you comment on rumours that
    BA to buy those BN MPs to form new government.
    Oklah! dont say buy lar !! just say they want to
    switch to BN voluntary , do you think it is acceptable??
    or they should resign as MP instead??
    pls comment

    sorry for late reply.

    Inducing elected representatives from other parties to cross over is both wrong and bad.

    It is wrong because cross-over is against – if not outright a betrayal – the voters’ original choice.

    It is bad because it weakens the party system regardless the quality of those cross-over.

    If the defected members are of low quality, then it certainly contaminates the recipient party – and the new government if the recipient party comes into power with such defection.

    On the other hand, if the defected members are of good quality, then the opponent parties are left with only the rejected products. Imgaine this hypothetical scenario: what would happen to UMNO and MCA if they loose the likes of Zaid Ibrahim and Ong Tee Keat and are left with the likes of Khairy Jamaluddin, Hishamuddin Hussein Onn and Ong brothers? These parties would either be wiped out completely in next elections (more likely for MCA) or take on a hard nationalist line (more likely for UMNO). Would you be able to vote for opposition even if the Anwar-led new government does badly?

    No, we will not have any credible and electable opposition. We will come back to where we were. And no two-coalition system.

    For both that party-hopping is wrong and bad, I oppose and condemn any such move by the Opposition. I will write a longer piece on this and on the constitutional crisis soon.

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