Deciphering the Numbers behind GE-13:
Why Pakatan Rakyat Won the Election but Still Lost Parliament
Barisan Nasional (BN) – 133 Pakatan Rakyat (PR) – 89
These two numbers will forever be etched in the memory of many Malaysians, and years from now, we will still remember how they emerged against all odds to defer our hope for a better Malaysia. However, these two numbers representing the number of parliamentary seats won by each side are in fact a façade that oversimplifies the election result and masks the reality of an inherently flawed electoral system.
On the surface, the distribution of parliamentary seats suggests that BN has won the election with a 60% majority while the remaining 40% goes to PR. Yet if winning an election means getting the most votes, then with a total of more than 5.6 million votes for parliamentary seats, PR has actually defeated BN, which has garnered a total of only 5.2 million votes.
The Puzzling Distribution of Constituencies
While all eyes are trained on the delible “indelible ink”, the imported voters, and the blackouts, BN strikes out with a hidden dagger (or keris, in the case of UMNO)—the uneven distribution of constituencies, or in a fancier term, gerrymandering.
Studying the election results, I was surprised at how many parliamentary seats there are in Sabah and Sarawak. The two states may be geographically larger, but they are also less densely populated. With a little more than 1 million (1,083,972) voters, Sarawak has 31 parliamentary seats while Sabah, with a little less than 1 million voters (981,814), is represented by 25 parliamentary seats. Hence, it makes little sense that a densely populated state like Selangor that has over 2 million voters (2,048,828) is given only 22 parliamentary seats.
What this then translates into is smaller constituencies in Sabah and Sarawak and larger ones in dense states like Selangor. The sizes of constituencies in Sabah range from 24,000 to 53,000 voters, and the sizes of constituencies in Sarawak range from 17,000 to 84,000 voters. However, in Selangor, the smallest constituency has more than 37,000 voters while the largest one has more than 144,000 voters. Therefore, the largest constituency in Selangor is almost 3 times bigger than the largest one in Sabah. In addition, there are also 8 constituencies in Selangor with more than 100,000 voters.
The Unequal Weight of Each Individual Vote
Because each constituency is represented by 1 parliamentary seat regardless of its size, the weight of each individual vote cast varies depending on the size of the constituency in which it was cast: the smaller the constituency, the more weight an individual vote carries.
Let’s consider a comparison of the smallest and the largest constituencies. With only 15,791 registered voters, Putrajaya (P125) is the smallest constituency while Kapar (P109-Selangor) is the largest one with 144,159 voters. Simple mathematics reveals that Kapar is 9 times as large as Putrajaya. But because both constituencies are represented by 1 parliamentary seat each in spite of the difference in their respective sizes, 1 vote in Putrajaya carries 9 times as much weight as 1 vote in Kapar.
As a result of this uneven distribution of electorates, BN won Putrajaya simply with 9,943 votes, but on the other hand, PR won Kapar with a majority of 69,849 votes. Although PR gained 7 times more votes in Kapar than BN did in Putrajaya, both were assigned 1 parliamentary seat each.
Underrepresenting the Urban Areas
The largest constituencies are often the ones in urban areas. As many political analysts pointed out, the result of GE-13 shows that PR gained the support of middle- and upper-class urban voters while BN retained the votes of those in rural areas. But through gerrymandering, BN has managed to gain more parliamentary seats by winning a higher number of smaller and less densely populated constituencies, particularly those in rural areas. PR, on the other hand, won large amounts of votes from urban dwellers, but these large numbers of voters are often lumped into densely populated constituencies, resulting in a lower number of parliamentary seats for PR.
Let’s consider the example of Sarawak, the state with the highest number of parliamentary seats. PR has won 4 out of the 5 largest parliamentary constituencies in Sarawak, all of which consist of more than 50,000 voters. BN, on the other hand, won the remaining 21 parliamentary constituencies, all of which (except one) consist of less than 50,000 voters, the smallest constituency having only a little less than 18,000 voters.
In Sarawak, BN garnered approximately 481,000 total votes while PR obtained approximately 304,000 votes. Translated into percentage, the total number of votes cast for each party in Sarawak indicates that BN won with a 61% majority as opposed to PR’s 39%. However, in terms of the distribution of parliamentary seats, BN took 81% of the parliamentary seats in Sarawak (25 out of 31) while PR took the remaining 19% (6 out of 31). There is clearly a huge disparity between the percentage of votes won and the percentage of parliamentary seats taken. Although I understand that, due to the way our electoral system works, it is close to impossible for there to be a one-to-one correlation, but nevertheless there should not be such a drastic difference between the two.
The Real Issue behind GE-13
Yes, the delible “indelible ink”, the imported voters, and the blackouts are problematic issues that need to be addressed. They are blatant violations of the electoral laws. But even if the indelible ink had been indelible, even if there were no illegal voters, even if there had been no blackouts, and even if we had achieved 100% voter turnout, the inherently problematic electoral system still ensured that the odds will always be against PR taking over the parliament. Garnering 5.6 million votes as opposed to BN’s 5.2 million, PR has in fact won GE-13 with a simple majority of 51%, but it still lost parliament due to the manipulation of constituency distribution. Ultimately, in order to ensure that each individual vote bears equal significance, the underlying issue that desperately needs to be addressed is the distribution of parliamentary constituencies.