We should not just look at GE13′s formal outcome but view it as a continuing process of democratisation, says Johan Saravanamuttu.
Democracy for all
One should first pose the question, what sort of ‘victory’ was the outcome of GE13 on 5 May 2013 for the Barisan Nasional(BN) and then ask whether it was truly a defeat for the Pakatan Rayat(PR).
Many have raised the point of how the BN could be said to have won the election with only 47 per cent of the popular votes, while the PR went well past 50 per cent, customarily thought to be a marker of victory in most contests (See Table 3). However, electoral systems are often designed to give a clear majority of seats to the eventual winner thereby distorting the result in terms of the popular vote.
Malaysia’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is particularly notorious for immense distortions of this sort. In the 1969 election, the Alliance collected only about 45 per cent of the popular vote but attained a simple majority in parliament, winning 55 per cent of the 140 seats . The 2013 outcome is quite similar. The BN has won about 47 per cent of the popular vote but has garnered 60 per cent of the seats.
It has been pointed out by many analysts that the Malaysian electoral system has been gerrymandered to favour incumbents, and constituencies are apportioned to favour rural areas. This has worked well for the BN, and the Alliance before it, in all general elections since Independence. The rationale for greater rural weightage was not initially thought to be unreasonable given that rural areas have scant access to resources and communication and deserved some form of affirmative action. However the Electoral Commission (EC) has over time completely ignored a 15 per cent limit on weighting given to rural seats. This is the reason for our current huge distortion of results.
However, what is really remarkable about the GE 13 is that Malaysia has finally become a two-party or two-coalition system. No third parties have won any seats at the parliamentary level of contestation except the BN and PR. Most third parties and independent candidates have lost badly – many their deposits – at both state and federal levels, indicating that the electorate has little appetite for spoilers.
The popular vote In 1969 and in this election in 2013, the Alliance and the BN respectively failed to gain the popular vote but still retained power with a simple majority of seats. This anomaly is explained by the BN mostly winning in predominantly rural and semi-rural areas (and with slimmer majorities) while the PR won convincingly in the urban areas, given rise to what is now labelled a rural-urban divide in Malaysia’s electoral politics.
This is not to say that the PR did not win at all in rural areas, only that its wins were smaller and the same goes for BN in urban seats. The often-stated fact about such lopsidedness is that Sarawak and Sabah have been allocated 31 and 25 seats respectively, accounting for a quarter of the total parliamentary seats and thus have been dubbed the “fixed deposits’ for the BN. In this election, the two states combined delivered 47 seats to the ruling coalition. (See Table 1).
A stark example of the phenomenon of a mismatch between the popular vote and seats at the state level of contestation can be found in the Perak results this time around. Pakatan won 54.75 percent of the popular vote in Perak compared to BN’s 45.25 percent, but the latter was able to form the state government with 31 elected representatives compared to PR’s 28.
A quick glance at Figure 1 below will further confirm the point about the severe malapportionment evident in Malaysia’s electoral constituencies. Translated in terms of outcomes, the larger the constituency, the greater the likelihood of Pakatan victories. The average size of Pakatan seats is 60 per cent larger than the average size of BN seats.
The second issue to be raised is the procedural issue of the manner in which the whole election was conducted and whether electoral fraud such as cheating, manipulation and other unethical tactics had marred the GE13 to the extent that the outcome should not be recognised. The jury is still out on this question and certainly an independent tribunal could help us resolve this question. For the moment, I am of the view that there is insufficient evidence to invalidate the overall electoral result.
Determining this would depend on whether there is clear evidence of substantial irregularities in enough parliamentary constituencies to overturn the current balance of seats from the BN’s to Pakatan’s favour. Constituencies where outright cheating may have occurred should be subjected to full investigation and where prima facie evidence pertains legal or judicial challenges should follow. After all this has happened before. If indeed, electoral fraud is evident beyond acceptable limits, and ruled so by court decisions, then by-elections should automatically be called by the EC.
The third point regards the eligibility of voters and how many eligible voters were actually disenfranchised by the lack of a genuine effort of the EC to put them on the roll. The related question is whether this is tantamount to a non-validation of the electoral result. Again, I stand on the side of accepting the result despite the fact that literally thousands of voters were denied their right due to the disingenuity of the EC or its sheer inertia. This is after three Bersih rallies have called for basic electoral reform.
A secondary issue concerns the use of indelible ink, sanctioned this time by the EC, but which was found to be easily removed. Did this give rise to double voting of early voters, particularly family members of the military and police? The numbers could be significant, perhaps some tens of thousands of voters. Here again, there is the charge of the ferrying in of foreigners from Sabah holding Malaysian ICs to vote in the Peninsula. What is the evidence and what are the real numbers? Again, the jury is still out on this. Both Anwar and Lim Kit Siang have charged that some 30 constituencies may have been subjected to electoral fraud.
The campaign trail and issues
The issues raised by the Pakatan on the campaign trail were anticipated as they have been raised time and again over the past two years or more. However this did not stem the avalanche of audiences at Pakatan rallies. The coalition offered the voters a Malaysia that would be free from corruption and money politics. It pledged to bring about economic transparency and accountability through democratic governance, which also implied the instituting of electoral reforms, advocated by the Bersih movement.
The Pakatan manifesto, a populist one, offered, inter alia, free education up to the tertiary level, a minimum wage of RM1100, affordable housing, cheaper cars, a lower petrol price and the incremental abolition of tolls. Targeting the oil-rich states, Pakatan promised a 20 per cent royalty instead of the current five per cent.
In the Kuching Declaration of 2012 made on 16 September (Malaysia Day), along with “oil justice”, Pakatan had offered the Borneo states restoration of native customary rights land and an equal partnership with Peninsular Malaysia. In my visit to Sabah before the campaign period, politicians from both sides of the divide never failed to remind me that Sabah and Sarawak joined Malaysia on equal terms with “Malaya”.
As for the issues pertaining to the Indian minority, now sadly fragmented politically after the splintering of Hindraf, DAP’s Gelang Patah Declaration of 31 March 2013 offered empowerment and citizenship to stateless individuals and other measures to deal with poverty and unemployment.
The BN manifesto was trotted out after the Pakatan’s two weeks before the campaign period on 6 April. Najib offered a strong and stable government, moderation and power sharing and continued ‘transformation’ of the Malaysian economy. More blatantly, all the ’1Malaysia’ programmes were to be continued including a third BR1M, a cash handout programme of RM500 to Malaysians earning less than RM1000 per month. Tagged on late in the day to its manifesto was also the lowering of car prices, which the Pakatan alleged was a copy of their policy.
As I traversed the campaign trail on the west coast of the peninsula, two slogans “Ini Kalilah, Ubah” (This is the Time, Change) and “Wu Yue Wu, Huan Zheng Fu” (505, Change the government) reverberated throughout the massive Pakatan rallies. Both these buzzes had replaced “Makkal Sakti”, the Hindraf battle cry, constantly heard during the 2008 campaign.
Thousands of Malaysians thronged the Pakatan rallies to savour the rousing and entertaining speeches of Anwar Ibrahim. The atmosphere in all these rallies was festive and celebratory. The BN could offer no real alternative with hardly any rallies to talk of, but the free dinners in Penang did attract crowds. The unprecedented 70,000-strong Pakatan rallies at Sutera Mall in Johor and the100,000-strong rally at Padang Kota in Penang breached all records of rally attendances and evidently showed that Pakatan supporters were hungry for a regime change.
We will now analyse why the BN actually lost massive ground and yet the Pakatan failed in its quest to take Putrajaya. Symbolic of this failure was Pas vice president Husam Musa’s inability to wrest the seat of Putrajaya itself. We will focus mostly on the parliamentary contest in this section.
The main reason that the BN lost a great deal of ground in this election can be explained by the massive swing of urban votes to the PR. Another explanation for the swing towards Pakatan could well be the youth vote, which will require further analysis. Contrariwise, an East-West divide evidently favoured the BN as we have already noted earlier how Sarawak and Sabah delivered 25 per cent of BN’s seats.
Much scorn has been poured on Najib’s reference to a so-called “Chinese tsunami” in GE 13. Although it would not be wrong to suggest that a large numbers of Chinese Malayisan voters supported the Pakatan, for it to win, even larger numbers of Malay voters was required. The ethnic vote would vary from state to state.
This time around Malays tended on the whole to throw their weight behind the BN in Kedah. This contrasts starkly with the overwhelming support the Malays gave to PR via Pas in Kelantan and contributing about 49 per cent of their votes to PR in Terengganu, won by the BN by a mere two seats.
The near decimation of the MCA and Gerakan and the low returns for the MIC reveal that Chinese and Indian Malaysian voters now have little appetite for these race-based parties, a testimony to growing multiracialism in Malaysia’s electoral politics. The DAP, by fielding two winning Malay candidates, shows that it is now able to bandwagon on multiracial politics.
We will now examine briefly the Pakatan’s foray in the new so-called “frontline states”. In an earlier article, I had defined “frontline states” to mean those that would be defended stoutly or won by either side at the state level and also those that could deliver a significant number of parliamentary seats to the Opposition towards its goal of capturing Putrajaya. Let’s focus particularly on the outcomes in Johor, Negri Sembilan, Sabah and Sarawak.
Pakatan made an unprecedented penetration of Johor, customarily touted as Umno and MCA’s bastion. From a standing of merely one parliamentary and six state seats, the PR has now secured five (out of 26) parliamentary and 18 (out of 56) state seats. In the battle royale of Gelang Patah, DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang resoundingly defeated Abdul Ghani Othman, former Mentri Besar, by 14,762 votes in a mixed parliamentary constituency of over 106,864 electors. Thus Johor does not appear anymore to be a safe haven for the BN.
Many BN defeats came from MCA losses while PKR picked up one parliamentary and one state seat and Pas took four state seats, an improvement of three from the previous outing. DAP was Pakatan’s major winner, securing three new parliamentary seats, and 14 state seats, ten more than before.
Two significant defeats for the PR came by way Salahuddin Ayub, a Pas vice president, losing in Pulai and Chua Jui Meng, a PKR vice president, losing in Segamat. All said, Umno stayed it ground in Johor and denied Pakatan parties the larger breakthrough that they had hoped for.
In Negri Sembilan, the status quo was more or less maintained with Pakatan holding on to three (out of eight) parliamentary seats but with one loss in the state, taking 14 out of 36 seats. This result put paid to the suggestion that the Pakatan was en route to capturing state power and capable of taking an extra four seats from the outcome of 2008.
In an almost similar situation in Perak, the Pakatan was three short of reassuming the state power that it lost by crossovers in 2009.
Oddly, while no major plan of capturing Terengganu was announced, Pakatan came within spitting distance, two seats short of the target, and winning about 49 per cent of the popular vote.
In Sabah and Sarawak, there were gains but no major breakthrough for the Pakatan. In Sarawak, six parliamentary seats were captured, a modest gain, five delivered by the DAP and one by PKR. In Sabah, the capture of three parliamentary seats by the Pakatan was two more than before. As such this was a poor performance due mainly to multi-cornered contests in many seats. However, at the state level, Pakatan’s penetration could be said to be significant with PKR winning seven seats and DAP, four.
All said, Pakatan’s foray into the new frontline states and its defence of old terrain failed to yield the desired results. There was the loss of Kedah, the less than stellar performance in Negri Sembilan, while the lacklustre results in Sabah and Sarawak proved crucial in its failure to gain the seat of power in Putrajaya.
GE 13 was a victory for the onward trajectory of a people-oriented democracy in Malaysia and showed the tracking of a two-coalition electoral system in Malaysia. The election has continued to valorise the Reformasi movement of the late 1990s, with a newer generation of young voters joining the fray along with the now older Reformasi generation, many of whom such as Nurul Izzah, Liew Chin Tong, Nik Nazmi, Tony Pua, Nizar Jamaluddin and Charles Santiago have now become icons of Malaysia’s reformist politics.
One should not just look at GE 13 in terms of its formal outcome but also in terms of it as a continuing process of democratisation. Malaysia remains on this path thanks to the agency of the youth, whose engagement in new politics no doubt explains the unprecedented 85 per cent turnout and the new spirit of multiracialism in this election. In this sense, 505-13 marked an historic breakthrough of a people-oriented, participatory electoral politics.
1. The general election was suspended in Sabah and Sarawak after the May 13 riots but held later in June. Some of the Borneo parties later joined the Barisan Nasional (BN), the Alliance’s successor, to boost its parliamentary majority to two-thirds of the seats.
Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, a long-time Aliran contributor and former Aliran trustee, is currently Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies (Iseas), Singapore. When politics gets too much for him, he whips out his guitar and sings ballads of hope and justice.