Increasing women’s representation in Malaysian politics

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Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

A women-only-additional-seats system is the most feasible, fastest and least contentious way of accelerating women’s participation in formal politics., says Maznah Mohamad.

Women’s under-representation in politics

As the 14th general election approaches, will there be any significant change to Malaysian women’s under-representation in political office? Would women continue to form 50 per cent of all voters? Would all women’s wings of political parties be dutifully mobilised to win the hearts of all voters? And yet, when the election is done and over with, only a very small number of women will hold any leadership position.

Malaysia is ranked 156th out of 190 countries in terms of women’s representation in parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The number of women elected to the Malaysian Parliament ranged from 1.9 per cent in 1955 to 11.3 per cent in 2008. Currently, only 10.8 per cent of parliamentarians are women.

The federal cabinet has only three women ministers, while dtate cabinets only have one woman member in each of their executive councils with the exception of Selangor, Kedah and Perak with two women. Terengganu has not a single woman on its State Executive Council.

Women’s representation in party leadership, according to their websites is highest within the National Justice Party (PKR) at 26.7 per cent, followed by the PBS at 21.4 per cent, the DAP at 12.5 per cent and Umno at 12.3 per cent. Gerakan occupies the lowest spot with only five per cent of women in its highest governing committee. Obviously not much is being done to redress women’s under-representation within internal party structures themselves.

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Malaysia’s obligation

Malaysia is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), which obliges it to set up temporary special measures to accelerate and increase the participation of women in decision-making positions. In this regard, women’s political representation is too important to be left to the unmediated forces of electoral competition for their numbers to increase.

A more effective mechanism is needed to hasten women’s entry into politics – one that will create a dent in the vicious circle of male and/or party gatekeeping and allow more women leaders to serve society and function as role models for other women to enter politics.

The fewer the women who occupy strategic leadership positions, the fewer will there be new women leaders in the party. On the other hand, more women in politics begets more women into politics.

Proposal for a non-constituency, nominated women MPs

A legislation which allows for a non-constituency and/or party list system for women representatives may be one of the most feasible options to accelerate women’s entry into politics. In this system, each party nominates up to a certain number of women candidates to fill up the posts of nominated parliamentary representatives.

There are several variations to the above system within the current constraints of the first-past-the-post system, such as the following:

1) Implementing a voluntary quota list at the party level for internal and external elections

This measure must be implemented through the will and initiative of individual political parties. A party’s internal leadership election can impose the 30 per cent women’s quota, while candidacy selection for external elections can also abide by the minimum 30 per cent of women being nominated. The electorate, in the form of women’s NGOs, can insist on knowing the party’s position on this issue in its manifesto during the election campaign period.

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2) Retaining Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system with a minimum of 30 per cent women’s quota at the candidacy level

This measure can only be done through an amendment to the federal constitution, which legislates that there should be a quota of at least 30 per cent of women nominated as candidates for state and federal elections.

3) Enacting a post-election provision which allows for women-only additional seats (WOAS) at the state assembly

This measure can be undertaken with an amendment to state constitutions and can be debated and passed at the state assemblies. The proposed bill need not be tabled as a federal parliamentary bill.

The women-only-additional seats (WOAS) as the most viable option

On balance and without superseding the existing first-past-the-post system, the third measure or the WOAS is the most feasible, fastest and least contentious way of accelerating women’s participation in formal politics.

Currently, an existing model of state constitutions allows for this special position. Article 14 (1c) of the Sabah state constitution allows for “nominated members, not being more than six” to be appointed by the Yang di Pertua Negeri.

The clause above is an example of how ‘nominated members’ may be able to sit in state assemblies without being elected. The specification as to the number of additional seats decided can be calculated on the basis of achieving 15 per cent or 30 per cent women’s representation in the state assemblies. Such a system will not threaten the seats of incumbents.

As practised in proportional representation systems, party candidates can be nominated on the basis of popular votes won in the election; an agreed number of women representatives will be based on the proportion of popular votes won by their parties in the state election.

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This nominated category provides for some compensatory balance to the winner-takes-all outcomes of the first-past-the-post system: the size of popular votes by parties is not proportionately considered in the final election of the people’s representatives.

The above proposal is by no means a radical measure that will greatly erode the male bastion of politics. It nonetheless will bring about some necessary gender balance in the electoral system.

A more gender equal society will make for a higher quality society. The initiative to raise the number of women in politics can be in synchrony with programmes that improve the quality of their representation and expertise.

As we approach the 14th general election, it is incumbent upon all political parties to state their position on this proposal.

Dr Maznah Mohamad, an Aliran member, is an academic and a member of the steering committee on gender and electoral reform convened by the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC).

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