Port Dickson: Wider debate needed on electoral system, candidacy selection

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Photograph: The Malaysian Insider

In response to public sentiments on the upcoming Port Dickson by-election, Bersih 2.0 calls for a wider debate on both the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system and the top-down and opaque candidacy selection process.

Bersih 2.0 says it is high time for Malaysians to consider and for PKR candidate for the by-election Anwar Ibrahim to take a stand if we want to continue having all our parliamentarians and state lawmakers elected through the first-past-the-post system or if we should move to some mixed member systems with some lawmakers elected through party list proportional representation.

Because the mandate under the former is personal, the current system necessitates by-elections whenever vacancies arise, whether the incumbents succumb to illness or accident or become incapable or are disqualified or resign.

The resignation of the Port Dickson MP Panglima Muda Danyal Balagopal Abdullah to pave the way for PKR president Anwar Ibrahim to return to the Parliament shows the rigidity of the first-past-the-post system in allowing a party to alter their leadership line-up.

Admittedly, Anwar’s case is unique – unqualified to contest because of a politically motivated imprisonment yet being named as the next prime minister in a pre-election pact which elected in 55% of parliamentarians – and will not have an easy solution under any electoral system because of his sentence.

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But the inflexibility for parties to adjust their leadership line-up – necessary for parliamentary governments – has wide implications beyond this case and beyond in by-elections to replace deceased incumbents.

The practice of appointing losing candidates or unelected technocrats as senators before their appointment as ministers or deputy ministers is one such consequence, making the Senate even more of a rubber-stamp. The Pakatan Harapan administration now has five senators.

More idiosyncratically, Anwar’s ‘Kajang Move’ in 2014 was triggered because his party could not name him as a back-up candidate as menteri besar without a by-election.

Anwar Ibrahim who has triggered three by-elections – twice due to political trials – so that he can lead a government has the moral responsibility to make clear if he wants to keep the rigid system and conveniently bend it to his interest.

Bersih points out, beyond the question of dynastic politics directed to the Anwar family, the bigger question is the top-down and opaque candidacy selection process across almost every party in Malaysia.

The 2018 general election saw many new candidates fielded by both Barisan Nasional and PH in last-minute arrangements or against the will of local branches. Such undemocratic practices often cause local discontent, boycott or even sabotage. In fact, the parliamentarian who has resigned in Port Dickson was such a last-minute pick.

By right, candidates under a first-past-the-post system should be selected bottom-up by local branches, not by party headquarters, as in the UK, where the system is born and still applied. Nomination of candidates by party headquarters is only justified in party list proportional representation

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When candidacy selection is top-down and opaque, can allegations of nepotism or cronyism be avoided even if a son, a daughter or an unrelated protégé of a prominent leader is qualified to be a candidate in their own right?

Bersih 2.0 calls upon Malaysians to be critical of the Port Dickson by-election, but their scrutiny must cover the systemic defects and not end with personalities.

Bersih 2.0 steering committee

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