FPTP in Malaysia: Would MMP be better?

In a publication called Sun2Surf, which describes itself as the “Malaysian source for news and lifestyle,” an article on 22 January noted that a Ph.D. candidate at Essex who is doing research on Malaysian elections has argued that MMP would be preferable to Malaysia’s current FPTP system. (Can you imagine an American “news and lifestyle” publication devoting an article to electoral reform? Alas, you can only imagine it.)

Wong Chin Huat said Malaysia’s FPTP electoral system was not democratic because worldwide, FPTP notoriously produced seat-vote disproportionality, made much worse in Malaysia because of partisan constituency delineation.

He said the mal-apportionment of the FPTP system, coupled with gerrymandering (unfair electoral advantage by redelineating constituency boundaries), produced a scenario in the 2004 elections where Barisan Nasional (BN) won 91% of seats in Parliament with only 64% of votes.

Meanwhile, PAS only secured 2.7% of seats despite having 15% of voter support, DAP 5.5% of seats with its 10% voter support, and Parti Keadilan Rakyat 0.5% of seats with 9% voter support.

I am certainly not about to disagree that MMP would be a vast improvement over FPTP for just about any jurisdiction. However, it is worth exploring his claims about the specific impact of the existing FPTP system in Malaysia.

I have insufficient knowledge of Malaysian elections and political geography to know the the extent to which either malapportionment (districts having unequal voter populations) or gerrymandering (districts having lines drawn in such a way as to make one party or demographic group likely to win the plurality) would be the primary explanation for the leading alliance having won more than 90% of the seats on 64% of the vote, rather than the FPTP system’s inherent disproportionality.

Each factor could be a parameter in a model connecting the vote to the seat outcome, such that we would know how much bonus the leading party/alliance would have in hypothetical equally populated districts with unbiased boundaries.

From a quick look at the votes and seats, and an application of the seat-vote equation, it appears that any gerrymandering (and perhaps malapportionment) has been done to bias in favor of minorities, not against them. If that is the case, the way that the ruling alliance has managed FPTP has contributed to minority representation and has dampened the normal plurality-bonus effect of this electoral system.

The seat-vote equation, in its simplest form, says that the ratio of seats of the two largest parties is expected to be the ratio of the parties’ votes, raised to an exponent. The exponent is often around 3 for FPTP systems (giving us the famous “cube law“), but it can be derived more precisely by dividing the log of the number of voters by the log of the number of districts.

With just under seven million Malaysians casting votes in 2004 in 219 single-seat districts, the exponent is about 2.9. The votes for the Barisan National (BN) amounted to 63.9%, while the runner up Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS in its Bahasa Malay initials) had a mere 15.2%. This is a vote ratio of 63.9/15.2 = 4.2. Raising this ratio to 2.9, we get an expected seat ratio of 64.4. That is, the BN “should win” sixty four times as many seats as the PAS. That’s without any malapportionment or gerrymandering favoring the largest party or alliance. That’s just the expected seat relationship given such dominance by the largest party/alliance. It would work out to roughly 216 seats for BN and only three for the second party.

The BN actually won about 28 times as many seats as the PAS, not 64 times as many. The PAS actually came in third in seats despite being second in votes to the Democratic Action Party. The latter party won 12 seats, meaning the BN bested it by a ratio of about 16:1. In other words, the leading alliance, the BN, is under-represented, given what we would expect from a typical FPTP system.

That is not to say that there is no malapportionment or gerrymandering in Malaysia. If I had populations of districts, measuring actual malapportionment would be straightforward, but I don’t (and I would not have the time or energy to do the calculations even if I had.) Gerrymandering could be inferred from a district map (which I do not have), though it would be more accurate if we also had census breakdowns by district (i.e. if we could see both oddly shaped districts and patterns of demographic or partisan dominance of such districts).

I don’t have this kind of detailed district-level data on Malaysia. However, one can learn a lot from aggregate electoral statistics. And from Malaysia in 2004, it is clear that any malapportionment or gerrymandering that exists is not benefiting the BN against the opposition, but rather is ensuring something close to de-facto proportional representation of several components within the BN, and over-representation of some of the smallest components.

Let’s look at the component parties within the BN. Following are the parties and their shares not of the total vote, but rather of the BN’s votes (i.e. the denominator is the four million votes cast for all candidates nominated by the BN parties, not the 6.9 million votes cast for candidates of all parties, BN and opposition), followed by their shares of the BN’s total of 198 seats.

    United Malays National Organisation, 56.2, 55.1
    Malaysian Chinese Association, 24.3, 15.7
    Malaysian People’s Movement, 5.8, 5.1
    Malaysian Indian Congress, 5.0, 4.5
    Other National Front parties, 8.6, 19.7

The UNMO is represented almost perfectly proportionally (actually slightly under-represented), which is not what we would normally expect from FPTP. Obviously the Chinese Association is under-represented and the various “others” are collectively over-represented, but that only re-emphasizes the point that the BN employs FPTP in such a way as to ensure the over-representation of favored minorities that contribute votes to it, for many of these favored minorities are quite small as a share of the population.

This favored representation of minorities within the BN constituency could be (but probably has not been) accomplished without either malapportionment or gerrymandering. For example, by strategic nomination of affiliated party candidates (which the BN without doubt engages in) and disciplined BN voting blocs (that will give their votes to BN candidates even if not from their own ethnic group or its party). Nonetheless, it is clear that FPTP has allowed the BN to ensure representation to its component minorities, even at the expense of the dominant Malay group within it.

How any of this minority representation would play out under PR (whether MMP or otherwise) is difficult to imagine. The BN surely would not survive in its current form, but the UMNO probably would. The UMNO in 2004 won about 36% of the total vote, with the runners-up being two parties (the opposition PAS and the BN’s Chinese Association) that were each just over 15%.

Whether Malaysian ethnic relations would be better–and more democratically–managed under an electoral system that would promote a greater degree of post-election bargaining between a dominant (but not majority) UMNO and various other ethnic and religious parties that would bargain with it to form governments is not something I am in a position to judge. But PR would change Malaysian politics in a way that would be more fundamental than in almost any other country that currently uses FPTP (and that is saying something).

Compare the related points I made with respect to India, where (less comprehensive versions of) BN-like pre-election coalitions have emerged under FPTP, but where inter-alliance competition is much more significant than in Malaysia, resulting in minority cabinets and electorally induced turnover–neither of which has yet occurred in Malaysia.

0 thoughts on “FPTP in Malaysia: Would MMP be better?

  1. From what I understand of Malaysia, the main problem is ethnic and political malapportionment. The smallest constituencies, usually in rural Malay districts, have about one tenth the number of registered voters as the big constituencies in majority-Chinese urban areas.

  2. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

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