Should Malaysia change its electoral system to avoid a future hung Parliament? Here’s what analysts say

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 12 — Malaysia went through three federal governments within a span of just four years before last November’s general election that aimed to obtain a fresh mandate and ensure stability.

Contrary to expectations, it resulted in a hung Parliament. This has prompted many voters to suggest a relook at the electoral system to prevent a recurrence.

However, several experts contacted by Malay Mail said that the possibility of future hung Parliaments or coalition governments is no reason for Malaysians to panic.

“A hung Parliament is a normal occurrence in other democratic nations, I think it’s the first time it’s happening in Malaysia so we are quite surprised by that,” said Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research senior fellow Azmi Hassan.

He added that Malaysia’s appointment of a prime minister in just five days is relatively short compared to other nations, for example Israel, which took almost two months to pick one after its election on November 1 last year similarly ended in a hung Parliament.

In the 21st century, the United Kingdom has had two elections, in 2010 and 2017, that resulted in hung Parliaments. Australia had one in 2010. New Zealand had one in 2017. And France had one last year.

While many nations that hold elections do not often experience hung Parliaments, a large portion of democratic countries also do not have a single party that is able to win an absolute majority on its own.

Instead, they resort to coalition governments, much like Malaysia’s current government — which has earned the misnomer of being called a “unity government” — and even from its founding as the Barisan Nasional was formed of several component parties.

These countries include Japan, Indonesia, Germany, Italy, France, Denmark and others across the globe.

Is a majority government more desirable than a coalition government?

Professor William Case, the head of University of Nottingham’s School of Politics, said that although majority governments are generally less fragile than coalition governments, there is no certainty that they are better.

“A government made up of a single party, if disciplined, can better avoid splits, defections, and policy immobilism; as with the People's Action Party in Singapore. “But in many cases, even single parties grow vulnerable to elite-level rivalries and the formation of distinct factions, like the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan or Umno in 1988. “Coalition governments, on the other hand, can sometimes institutionalise their unity and persist over long periods, like BN or the coalition of the Liberal and National Party in Australia,” he said.

Would changing our electoral system help bring in a more stable government?

Electoral systems used across the globe vary from Malaysia’s “first-past-the-post” system — where candidates are elected after winning a simple majority of votes in a constituency. For example, Australia allows for an “alternative vote”, where voters are required to rank-order their preferences on their ballots — writing down the number “1” beside their first choice, “2” beside the second choice and so on.

If no candidate receives an absolute majority after the ballots are tallied, then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and his or her ballots are redistributed according to the second choices marked on them.

This process continues until a winner emerges with more than half the votes.

In a number of European countries such as Sweden, a category of electoral systems called “proportional representation” is used. This allocates seats in proportion to the number of votes a party gets in an election.

For example, if Party A gets 30 per cent of the total votes in an election, then it will receive 30 per cent of the seats available in Parliament – which will be filled up according to a list of candidates that is set by the party.

Some countries like Germany or New Zealand employ more complex hybrid systems that elect different portions of their parliament via different systems, including a portion by proportional representation.

Despite early implementers of these various electoral systems predicting benefits such as not wasting votes, or being more representative of what all voters want, the analysts agreed that all systems have their drawbacks.

Furthermore, they said that none have shown to be clearly better at creating strong governments.

Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun pointed out that Germany and New Zealand, which had hybrid systems that were meant to have the least problems possible, were also not in a better situation than Malaysia.

“This is vividly demonstrated by the fact that at the moment Germany also has a coalition government and New Zealand a minority government,” he said.

Oh said that the present political turmoil in Malaysia is mainly due to the need for a prime minister to constantly maintain a parliamentary majority.

“Under the current political mood in the country, whereby MPs are more or less free to alter their political allegiance at will, it really does not matter whether the government is a coalition or a majority one, as those supporting MPs may defect and bring about the collapse of the government at any time,” he said.

Oh said that although Malaysia had an anti-party hopping law, MPs perhaps still could change who they support to be prime minister without switching parties.

“Perhaps the pre-1998 Indonesian model can be referenced, whereby their People's Consultative Assembly chose the president who served for five years without having to maintain a parliamentary majority,” he said.

Indonesia’s People's Consultative Assembly is the equivalent of Malaysia’s Dewan Rakyat.

In 1998, Indonesia saw violent riots — triggered by corruption, economic problems, and mass unemployment – that forced its then leader Suharto to step down after 31 years in power, ushering in several reformations that were seen as pro-democracy.