New Zealand electoral model could heal Malaysia’s ailing polls system

It is time to try a different model to overcome our political impasse

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The New Zealand parliament buildings in Wellington - MICHAL KLAJBAN/WIKIPEDIA

In 2020, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked New Zealand the cleanest nation while Malaysia was ranked 57th. 

Until 9 January 2021, Lowy Institute ranked New Zealand first in handling the Covid pandemic while Malaysia was ranked 16th.

New Zealand’s top ranking in both measures is not coincidental. It was achieved through fair, transparent, sustainable and inclusive electoral, political, social and economic systems involving local communities, where no one is left behind. 

New Zealand has two levels of government and elections: the federal parliament and local councils. (Several local councils combine to form a regional council to provide services such as water and public transport.)

Malaysia has a federal Senate (appointed senators) and the a House of Representatives (elected MPs); state assemblies (elected members) and local councils (political appointees).

Let’s look wider at how the New Zealand model can help the ailing Malaysian economic, political and electoral systems.

Overcoming first-past-the-post shortcomings

Until 1996, New Zealand also used the British first-past-the-post system, before changing to the Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMP) through two referendums.

For MMP, each voter is given two ballot papers to vote for a member of Parliament: one ballot for a constituency (geographical) ‘member’ and another ballot for the preferred party, which is counted ‘proportionally’.

In the New Zealand parliament, roughly half the MPs are from geographical constituencies and another half from ‘party lists’, reflecting the proportion of votes each party secures nationally.

MMP has these benefits:

  • It gives small ideologically based parties (such as New Zealand’s Green Party and Malaysia’s socialist party PSM) a chance to enter parliament without having to join a pre-election coalition that does not have a common ideology
  • It automatically reduces gerrymandering and malapportionment (eg Putrajaya has 27,000 voters compared to Petaling Jaya, which has 141,000 voters!)
  • It reduces vote-buying in marginal seats, patronage and the ‘winner-takes-all’ approach
  • It reduces the incentive for MPs from party list seats to defect as their parties ‘own’ the seats allocated to them through party lists. It does not require by-elections to fill a vacancy: just replace the elected member with someone else from the party list
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Easier for voters

The New Zealand electoral system encourages inclusivity. Voters can choose to vote in a polling station of their choice. This will save voters’ time, money and the environment (through a lower carbon footprint). More importantly, it reduces ‘absentee’ voters.

Millions of Malaysians drive, fly or travel by bus or by boat to their designated polling stations. Thousands of others are unable to vote due to time and cost constraints.

In New Zealand, voting starts two weeks before election day and ends on election day, with most polling stations open until 7pm. New voters can register as late as one week before polling starts. Malaysia’s Election Commission, please take note and serve the voters and taxpayers.

Campaigning in the digital age

Even back in the 1980s, New Zealand voters could follow the debates involving the leaders of major and minor parties over TVNZ (it had two channels then). Electoral rules mandated TV stations to free and equal airtime to all parties. Newspapers were similarly required to provide fair coverage to all parties. 

In 2020, we could follow New Zealand and US leaders’ election debates on social media, including YouTube.

Today, the majority of Malaysians have access to TV, live streaming and the internet. So the ball is in the court of the Election Commission to provide transparent, free and fair campaigning. Giving priority to campaigning over electronic media will reduce the need for large rallies or ceramah, thus reducing the risk of virus infections and corruption.

Pre-election or post-election coalitions?

The new normal both in Malaysia, New Zealand and many other democracies is the need to form coalitions, as often, no single party can win a majority in parliament.

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Traditionally, Malaysian parties formed pre-election coalitions mainly to facilitate seat allocations and collaboration. For instance, Barisan Nasional is a coalition of various ethnic-based parties while Pakatan Harapan in 2018 had a lofty manifesto and a clarion call to vote in anyone except the scandalous 1MDB leaders.

In New Zealand under MMP, the Labour Party usually formed a post-election coalition with left or centre-left parties through a confidence-and-supply agreement and vice versa for the National Party. A post-election coalition would depend on the election result, which may reflect the voters’ swing and preferences for various parties’ manifestos. Party leaders who compromise their manifestos are usually punished in the next election.  

The political impasse since the Sheraton Move has crippled Malaysia’s ability to fight Covid, driven away foreign and local investors, and worsened unemployment and underemployment. 

Let’s push those in power to heal Malaysia’s ailing electoral and political system through these measures:

  • Replace the first-past-the-post system with MMP. The efficacy of the proportional system can reduce corruption and patronage while levelling the playing field
  • Make the Election Commission more independent, fair and progressive and implement reforms to serve voters and taxpayers instead of their political masters who want to create fear
  • Allow open and transparent confidence-and-supply arrangements among various parties to create competition in Parliament as a step forward towards a more mature democracy that can really serve the people
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