If you want change to continue, bring in new ideas

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Are our elected representatives wearing too many hats that overwhelm them? Would proportional representation be a fairer system? Eymar Santa explores the possibility of change.

Parliament
MPs in Parliament: One role too many? – Photograph: anwaribrahim.info

Everybody agrees that 505 was an important date for Malaysian democracy; Malaysians went en masse to vote.

Apparently some 85 per cent of registered voters came out to cast their votes this time. Pakatan Rakyat won almost 51 per cent of the total votes, while BN captured 47 per cent. This is the simplest proof that most Malaysians wanted Ubah (Change).

During the election campaign, massive crowds of young and older voters gathered at PR rallies organised everywhere in Peninsula Malaysia. The Rakyat’s fearlessness in attending these mass rallies showed that a strong interest in Malaysia’s future was slowly growing amongst Malaysians. The consciousness of being Malaysian was stronger than any political strategies aimed at dividing Malaysians along racial lines.

However, Change (Ubah) requires us to constantly bring in new ideas that have to be discussed and implemented according to the nature of society. In relation to this, I would like to compare some issues arising in a society I am familiar with, France.

The president of an independent commission – the Commission for the Renewal of French Politics – raised these issues in 2012. The solutions proposed by the Commission are still being discussed nowadays. Not everybody agrees with the entire document.. Yet, interesting ideas can emerge from a debate on such questions arising in the Malaysian context.

One representative – too many roles

One of the current debates in French political life concerns deputies who are already elected to another level of government. The main critique is, how can a representative of a constituency, who is never “on the ground” see to the needs of the people?

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A large number of people in France are now calling for a reform of the election process, forbidding a representative of Parliament to be a representative of a township, so that he/she can concentrate on serving the people better in a single capacity. As a consequence, the attendance at parliamentary debates will be higher as the representatives’ agendas will not overlap. The representatives will have more time to answer the concerns of those they represent.

In the case of Malaysia, this debate concerns representatives who are elected both in the State Assembly and Parliament, and are overall members of the Legislature on two levels. This makes Malaysians wonder if the representatives of these different constituencies are able to see to the needs of the people who voted for them.

Competency seems not as much of concern, as availability, since one person cannot be working on several fronts at the same time. The question is debatable yet it is a cornerstone in the fight for a fairer democracy.

The advantage of this is that it restricts the possibility of making politics a career. In this way, the possibility of corruption, bribery and abuse of political power is reduced.

Proportionally represented legislature

The idea of proportionality is a very old concept that matches the idea of participatory democracy.

Legislative elections in France are held on the principle of two-round majority elections. Basically, if a candidate gathers more than 50 per cent of the votes, he is elected. If nobody reaches 50 per cent, then, the two candidates with the highest number of votes have to go through a second round. The one who will have the highest majority in the second round will win the seat. It is quite similar to Malaysian elections except for the possibility of a second round.

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By introducing proportionality in elections, the result will be quite different and will reveal more accurately the voting reality. Under this alternative system, the GE13 results would be quite different. It is a great way for a democracy to be really representative since even the smallest party would have the chance of earning a seat in an election. Their voices and those who voted for them will have a higher chance of being heard.

Separation of parliamentary and state assembly elections

The separation of parliamentary and state Assembly elections towards the creation of better democracy is comparable to the strict separation of the legislative and presidential elections in France.

After the reform of the French constitution in 2005 that limits the presidential mandate to five years instead of seven, France’s legislative and presidential elections are held almost at the same time i.e. only a few weeks apart. Many commentators criticise this, arguing that during the five year term, the parliament and the president are not accountable. The idea is that there is no popular sanction during the five years.

It is obvious that by holding elections at the same time, people who vote for a BN candidate in the state assembly will also vote for a BN candidate in Parliament. Whereas if the state election was held at the mid-term of the federal mandate, there is a chance for the people to show that they disapprove of federal policies or they may also show their approval of them. This model is really well illustrated by the US situation where mid-term elections are indicators of the discontent toward the policies of the Federal government.

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Gender equality in the electoral process

There is no real democracy if men and women are not given an equal chance to become elected representatives or to become electoral candidates since the number of women and men are more or less equal on earth.

The principle of gender parity/equality has created much debate in France, because it affects freedom of choice. If we think about gender equality as an end i.e. that Parliament should have an equal number of men and women representatives, the People’s choice may not be respected. Alternatively, if we consider gender equality as a process, we might have a parliament that does not necessarily respect gender equality; this is the dilemma.

In France, the concept of gender parity is understood as a process. There is a legal obligation for political parties to present electoral lists that respect this policy. Ultimately, it is the electorate who will make the choice between electing a man or a woman; perhaps, one day, Parliament will see a strong majority of women. If gender parity is seen as a process, the People’s will remain sovereign.

In Malaysia the electoral system does not recognise the concept of gender equality, although efforts have been made by non-governmental women’s rights organisations to ensure at least 30 per cent of the legislature consists of women. In the context of the rise of feminism and the call to respect women’s rights, in line with Malaysia’s ratification of International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw), it is necessary to raise this issue.

Eymar Santa is the pseudonym of a keen observer of global politics.

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