Bring back the vote: The case for mayoral elections

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A mayoral candidate answers a question a debate ahead of San Francisco's mayoral election in 2011 - Photograph: Photo: Sarah Rice, Special To The Chronicle, sfgate.com

Sharon W H Ling looks back at a mayoral election in San Francisco and wonders when Malaysia will have elected mayors.

A mayoral candidate answers a question a debate ahead of San Francisco's mayoral election in 2011 - Photograph: Photo: Sarah Rice, Special To The Chronicle, sfgate.com
A mayoral candidate answers a question during a debate ahead of San Francisco’s mayoral election in 2011 – Photograph: Photo: Sarah Rice, Special To The Chronicle, sfgate.com

Up against the public – mayoral candidates face off (Photo Credit: SF Gate and San Francisco Sentinel)1

“San Francisco Mayoral Elections 2011 – Debate Tonight!”

Till this day, I remember it vividly. Residents of all ages and races were squeezed from wall to wall.

Out of a total of 16 candidates, about 10 were squashed together onstage like sitting ducks – including district supervisors, the city attorney, a state senator, and the incumbent mayor, who was in for a roasting.

The hall was thick with tension; the questions fast and furious like a hail of bullets. “What will you do to solve housing problems? Tackle inequality? Attract jobs to SF?”

At one point, multiple rivals took jabs at the mayor’s shaky reputation; words like “Integrity!” “Promises!” and “Failures!” were roared into microphones.

The audience jumped in too. “Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!” someone chanted from the back.

Crowd at San Francisco mayorial debate - Photograph: Roshani Dhungana/San Francisco Sentinel
Crowd at San Francisco mayorial debate – Photograph: Roshani Dhungana/San Francisco Sentinel

I had never been so excited in my life.

I left the US several years ago; but that memory remains to haunt me. What would Malaysia look like, if only our rakyat had the freedom to choose the Yang Dipertuas or Datuk Bandars of our cities, towns and municipalities? How would this change the quality of Malaysian local governance – if at all?

What mayoral elections can do – enhance accountability and democracy

Why elect mayors? The simplest answer is to increase public accountability. Right now, all Malaysian mayors are appointed either by State Governments or the Ministry of Federal Territories, in the case of Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, and Labuan.

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So, our mayors answer first to bureaucrats above – not to the rakyat. It doesn’t matter if a mayor makes universally hated decisions, ignores the public, or lets his city run into the ground – ordinary citizens have no power to punish. Without a reason to fear the wrath of voters, mayors and local authorities often stay where they are – which is far, far and away.

For example, in a so-called ‘open consultation meeting’ on DBKL’s bloated 2012 budget of RM2.3bn, the KL mayor simply refused to give a detailed copy or answers on why the full budget was not publicly available!

Sadly, such lack of accountability is the status quo. In KL, policy decisions like the gradual deforestation of Bukit Gasing and Bukit Kiara, the construction of the 118-storey Menara Warisan tower next to national heritage sites, and the 2014 assessment rate hikes (by 200-300 per cent) were all top-down and opaque, pushed through despite widespread public anger.

In theory, mayoral elections would at least force incumbents to listen to voters, and make them think twice before going about their work.

But there is another principle for mayoral elections, which is often overlooked – that is, giving voters a choice to decide the vision they want for their future.

That San Francisco mayoral debate was not just about citizens lighting fires under politicians’ backsides – it was a real chance to hear what candidates would do differently for the city. Over months of campaigning, candidates freely shared their opinions on hot policy topics: whether to ban buildings over 40 feet that overshadow parks, implement evening or Sunday parking meters, delay a central subway project, start a local income tax, increase the sales tax, ban conversions of rental housing to condominiums, give Twitter a multimillion-dollar tax break, allow homeless people access to public spaces, and so on.

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And in the New York City 2013 elections, candidate Bill de Blasio won a 73 per cent majority on his promise to be mayor “for the 99 per cent” – unlike his predecessor billionaire Michael Bloomberg, accused of letting inequality grow under his watch.

Caveat emptor

So will mayoral elections dramatically change Malaysia for the better? I can’t say – but I hope so.

Of course, casting votes is not the be-all and end-all – there are still many unknowns. With elections, there are as much chance of getting the Malaysian equivalent of Rob Ford (scandal-ridden and dramatically ousted by Toronto’s council) or someone like Ken Livingstone (famous for reforming London’s transit and introducing congestion charges).

Also, the working relationship between mayors, their councils and the bureaucracy, as well as the mayor’s scope of powers, will limit the extent of reforms.

But if we want to take Malaysian governance one step further – and stand on the same stage as fellow democracies like Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, and India – mayoral elections may be just what we need.

At the very least, we the people may get a golden chance to sharpen our knives and grill our potential YDPs and Datuk Bandars up close – the way San Francisco does.

sharon-ling-1Sharon W H Ling is a former parliamentary researcher with a keen interest in local politics, urban governance and social inequality.

She recently participated in Aliran’s Young Writers Workshop on Good Governance and Democracy and a second one on Federalism and Decentralisation, both supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.

She credits the workshops for kicking her longstanding writer’s block.

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