Did 2 million rural voters decide for Malaysia?

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PETALING JAYA: Among the election “literature” distributed prior to the 13th general election (GE13) was Tindak Malaysia’s analysis of the nation’s electoral outlook.

By virtue of Tindak Malaysia’s position as a non-partisan community movement that conducted voter education and training for election agents, the analysis was widely circulated via social media.

The analysis examined the 2008 political landscape and drew conclusions as to the probable results of GE13.

Tindak Malaysia’s main political premise was that the Barisan Nasional (BN) would never lose a general election because its re-delineation strategy was such that it was assured of winning most of the smaller rural parliamentary seats while the Pakatan Rakyat took most of the larger urban seats, which were fewer in number.

In GE13, for instance, the first 112 parliamentary seats won by the BN, except Putrajaya, comprised rural constituencies.

According to Tindak Malaysia founder Wong Piang Yow, BN only needed to win 112 seats in order to secure a simple majority and stay on as the ruling government at the federal level.

And based on his calculations, the first 112 constituencies BN won in the 2008 general election together generated a total of only 2.08 million votes.

“Do you agree that two million can decide for 28 million?” he asked.

The official GE13 figures have yet to be gazetted but Wong estimates that 2.26 million voters had decided for Malaysia on May 5.

Tindak Malaysia’s analysis also emphasised that the bulk of the 112 seats were in Malay-majority rural areas and had a total voter count of less than 45,000 each.

“For a simple majority rule, the rural bumiputeras decide,” said Wong. “Only for two-thirds majority do the non-bumiputeras have a say.”

“Is it a coincidence that the poorest groups with the worst infrastructure, education and healthcare facilities are the kingmakers?”

Political analysts who viewed the presentation agreed that the premise, though simplistic, was valid. However, they pointed out that other variables and technicalities had to be taken into consideration.

Prof James Chin of Monash University said in reality the two million had decided for the 10.9 million registered voters in the country, and not the total population of 28 million.

He said the calculations of a simple majority were also based on the assumption of a full voter turnout in all 112 seats, something which has yet to be achieved.

“But yes, it is possible that two million had decided for 10.9 million voters in 2008,” he said.

K Shan, chairman of the National Institute for Electoral Integrity (NIEI),  agreed with Chin on both points but said the controversy lay in the popular vote which he called a “problematic analysis”.

“We are behaving like we’re in a two-party system when in fact we’re living in a multi-party system,” Shan said. “The popular vote analysis doesn’t reflect an illegitimate government.”

Taking a different stand from other critics of Malaysia’s electoral system, Shan said the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system can be maintained but proposed the inclusion of proportional representation.

“FPTP is a balanced representation of the rural and urban communities, as well as those of Sabah and Sarawak especially when 70% of voters in those two states live outside the urban areas,” he said. “FPTP establishes a balance in urban voting power.”

On the subject of voting power, the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) has recommended that the upcoming re-delineation exercise reflect equal representation of votes by reverting to a former rural weightage system.

The system, which was part of the original Federal Constitution in 1957, called for not more than a 15% discrepancy from the average constitution in each state. The system underwent amendments in 1962 and was completely scrapped in 1973.

“Rural weightage basically says that people in rural areas should have a greater say in how the country is run because they might need more help,” said Ideas chief executive Wan Saiful Wan Jan.

“So there must be a normalisation of the constituency sizes while appreciating that there are urban, semi-urban and rural areas and each which different characteristics.”

Political analyst and newly elected DAP MP for Serdang Ong Kian Ming said while Tindak Malaysia’s calculations may be simplistic, it showed a possible reality given that the large majority of small seats were won by the BN.

“This point shows the inherent unfairness of the electoral system in Malaysia,” he said. “You would not find such a case in other mature democracies using FPTP.”

Two academics from Universiti Putra Malaysia’s (UPM) human ecology faculty agreed on the premise that the BN’s winning points were scored in the rural areas and warned that the ruling coalition now needed to focus on the urban areas in preparation for GE14.

Prof Sarjit Singh said while the BN’s survival in GE13 was heavily dependent on the rural votes, the next election would be a more severe test of its strength as younger rural voters move to the urban areas.

He also noted that political awareness among the minority communities has also increased this time which indicated that they wanted to be involved in the political process.

“They want to contribute their views but the question is to what extent are their views taken into account by the government,” he said.

Calling GE13 a “minority general election”, Sarjit’s colleague Prof Jayum anak Jawan asserted that without them, BN would not have been able to retain control of the federal government.

“Sabah and Sarawak supported a ship that was nearly sinking and with rural areas fast becoming urbanised, the minorities will play a bigger role in the next election,” he said.

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This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on May 23, 2013.