Pilehan raya atau pilehan jalan raya?

Is there hope for a change through the ballot box?
Raja Petra Kamarudin

Yesterday was Malaysia Today’s first half-year anniversary (we were ‘born’ on 13 August 2004) and we ‘celebrated’ it by welcoming Hishamddin Rais into our midst as our latest columnist. I hope we will see more and regular articles from this most unusual character who may be a tad too early for his time.

My socialist-minded alma mater comrade, Hishamuddin Rais, or Sham for short, is fond of provoking us with questions like, “Pilehan raya atau pilehan jalan raya?” In English, this roughly translates to: Elections or the choice of the streets? (In revolutionary countries they say: ballots or bullets?)

This statement of course got him detained for 26 months under Malaysia’s draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) when for a brief two weeks he shared a cell next to me.

As a short digression, during our initial detention, Sham and I accidentally bumped into each other — which was an error on the part of our prison guards as we were supposed to be constantly blindfolded and were not supposed to know who else was being detained together with us.

I knew he had been detained as he had been detained a day earlier than me but I do not think he knew I was in the cell next to him. Anyway, to signal to him that I too was under ISA detention, I would pray my Suboh, Maghrib and Ishak prayers very loudly, hoping he would recognise my voice.

When Sham and I set eyes on each other, the first thing he did was ask me,
“You too?” Yes, et tu, as in Julius Ceaser to Brutus.

“How long do you think we are going to be here?” Sham asked.

“Until the end of our sentence I suppose,” I replied.

“Oh God, I hope not,” Sham uttered in a dejected tone of voice, more thinking out aloud than replying to me.

Anyway, back to today’s issue of whether change will come from the ballot box or from street action (meaning demonstrations).

I would never ‘officially’ concur to the concept that change can only come through street action as this would mean a second round for me as a guest of His Majesty’s Government. But seriously, can change ever come through the ballot box? We will need to analyse the eleven general elections since Merdeka (Independence) to get a better idea of whether the ruling Barisan Nasional can ever be dislodged through the ballot box.

Malaysia’s First Parliamentary General Election was held in 1959. According to Barisan Nasional, it has always had the majority of the peoples’ support since the beginning, except for a brief period in 1969. This is certainly true.

Voter Turnout

First of all, let us look at the voter turnout. Voter turnout has never been good and it has always been to the ruling party’s benefit if lesser people come out to vote. In fact, the higher the voter turnout, the higher the opposition gains. That is why the opposition parties always make more effort to get as many voters as possible to come out and vote. The ruling party would be quite happy if the voters all stayed home. Sometimes they would even do certain things to frighten the voters or make it difficult for the voters to come out and vote.

And, when the voters do not come out, then this would enable the ‘phantom’ voters to come out in droves to take their place. Ever wonder why, during the last hour of polling, there is suddenly a crowd surge and they all ‘coincidentally’ vote for the ruling party?

In the First Parliamentary General Election in 1959, the voter turnout was only 73.3% or 1.55 million voters. 600,000 people decided to just stay home. Surprisingly though, the Alliance Party garnered only 51.8% of the votes. You would imagine they would have performed better than that considering they took the country through Independence barely two years earlier.

It must be noted that the Alliance Party comprised of UMNO, MCA and MIC. Therefore UMNO, on its own, did not even get 50% of the votes – which means many Malays DID NOT support UMNO. So much for Malay Supremacy or Ketuanan Melayu touted by UMNO! In terms of seats though, the Alliance won 74 out of 104 or around 71% of the seats in Parliament, so they managed to form the government.

51.8% of the votes but 71% of the seats!

Five years on, in the 1964 General Election, the voter turnout increased slightly to 78.9%. In this election, the ruling party garnered 58.5% of the votes. This increase can easily be attributed to the increase in registered voters. The number of registered voters had increased by 28% but the ruling party saw a vote increase of 50%. 500,000 more voters came out to vote for this election and 400,000 of these votes went to the Alliance – an impressive performance indeed. The Alliance’s number of seats in Parliament jumped to 86% – which more or less gave them a landslide victory.

58.8% of the votes but 86% of the seats!

In 1969, the voter turnout dropped back to 73.6%. In this historic election (historic only because of the race riots that followed it) the ruling party managed a paltry 44.9% of the votes. Out of the 144 seats contested, the Alliance won only 74 giving them slightly better than half the seats in Parliament and FAR SHORT of the two-thirds they needed to form an effective government.

44.9% of the votes but over 50% of the seats!

And that’s when all hell broke loose – organised chaos if you wish – infamously known as the May 13 incident.

The ruling party probably performed their best ever during the 1974 General Election. They managed to garner 60.7% of the votes. But this is only because the old Alliance Party no longer existed and the new multi-party coalition called Barisan Nasional comprised of all those opposition parties which, in the election before this, had denied the ruling party its two-thirds majority in Parliament.

In short, Barisan Nasional had swallowed the opposition so now the opposition votes belonged to it.

In terms of seats it was almost a clean sweep for Barisan Nasional as the opposition managed to win only 19 out of the 144 seats contested. Something must be wrong with the system that allows the opposition only 13% of the seats though it garnered 40% of the voters. In this election the voter turnout was only 75.1%. Again, 600,000 people did not leave home.

The 1978 General Election was not any better and was almost a repeat of 1974. Only 75.3% of the voters came out to vote. The ruling party won 57.2% of the votes, but this time their number of seats dropped to 130. The opposition managed to win 24 seats on the newly enlarged total of 154 seats – a slightly better performance for the opposition.

The 1982 General Election was, again, a duplicate of the election before that – 74.39% voter turnout, 60.54% votes to the ruling party giving them 132 seats, and 22 seats to the opposition – almost status quo.

From there PAS seemed to go downhill. The following General Election in 1986 was a disaster for PAS when it won only one seat and lost Kelantan to UMNO. Ironically, DAP saw its best ever by winning 24 seats. Barisan Nasional, which got 57.28% of the votes, won 148 seats or 84% out of the total of 177 seats. This was the turning point for both PAS and DAP – PAS its lowest point and DAP its highest.

Again, 57% of the votes but 84% of the seats went to the ruling party.

One interesting point to note is that the 1986 voter turnout was the worst in the history of our general elections as only 69.97% of the voters came out to vote. It was said the low voter turnout was one factor working against the opposition. More than two million people stayed home in that election.

1990 was the most interesting year. In the general election held that year, the ruling party managed only 53.38% of the votes. Voter turnout was only slightly better at 72.7%. A ‘record’ 2.2 million people stayed home and did not bother to come out and vote. Considering the ruling party garnered around only three million votes and the opposition won 2.6 million votes, the 2.2 million voters who stayed home were quite significant. If 8% more people had come out to vote, and if they had voted for the opposition, the results would have been quite different. Of course, if they had voted for the ruling party instead, then it would not have mattered much.

Anyway, the DAP lost four seats and managed to retain only 20. PAS & Semangat 46 shared 15 seats between them. PBS in Sabah got 14 seats. While four independent candidates got in. Out of the 180 seats contested, the ruling party still managed 127 seats or 70% – on slightly more than HALF the votes they obtained. Again, this shows that, in Malaysian elections, IT IS SEATS AND NOT VOTES THAT MATTER.

During the 1995 Parliamentary General Election, PAS and Semangat 46 got one seat less each and, combined, they managed only 13 seats. DAP did quite badly with nine seats while PBS got only eight seats. There were nine million registered voters that year but, just like in 1990, more than two million people stayed home. The ruling party garnered 65.2% of the votes and won 162 out of the 192 seats contested giving them 85% of the seats in Parliament.

They say 1990 was the high point for the opposition parties and their success can never be repeated. How then did the opposition parties fare in the 1999 General elections?

The 1999 Tenth General Elections

In Peninsular Malaysia, Barisan Nasional won 102 out of the 144 seats contested. This gave BN 70.8% of the seats, 4.2% more than what they needed to retain their two-thirds majority in Parliament. With the 46 seats they won in East Malaysia, BN sailed in comfortably with 148 seats, 20 more seats than what is required to maintain this two-thirds majority in Paliament and 52 more seats than what they needed to form the government with a simple majority.

This could be considered quite an achievement for BN which has never lost control of Parliament since Independence. Why then was BN not in a jubilant or celebrative mood?

This is because they knew that, though they came in with more than two-thirds of the seats, they failed to win two-thirds of the votes. Out of a total of about 5.8 million voters in Peninsular Malaysia, BN managed to convince only 3.1 million voters to vote for them while 2.6 million voters voted for the opposition. This came to less than 54% of the votes – far short of the two-thirds they need to legitimately claim that the people support the BN government.

Low Voter Turnout

What is most interesting to note though, only 73% of the voters came out to vote. Perak was the lowest at 66% followed by the Federal Capital at 70%. Why this low turnout?

Thousands of complaints were received that voters who had voted in that same area for the last few elections suddenly found their names missing from the electoral list. Others complained that someone else had voted in their place – when they went to vote they found that their names had been ‘cut off’ from the register (which means they had already voted). Then there were cases where voters’ names had been transferred to another state, so they could not vote as there was no way they could make it across the country in time to vote.

It was estimated that around 80% to 82% of the registered voters would have come out to vote this time around – if they could have. This would have made it one of the highest voter turnout in Malaysian election history. Many, in fact, did come out but were sent home disappointed.

If these 7% to 9% had not been denied their right to vote, and if the 680,000 voters who had registered earlier but could not vote, were included in the voters’ list, an additional one million people would have voted in the 1999 General Election.

The affect of the Disenfranchised Voters

According to the Elections Commission, 95% of these 680,000 disenfranchised voters were below the age of 30. The Alternative Front or Barisan Alternatif (BA) claims that more than 70% of these people barred from voting were their supporters. Dr Mahathir Mohamad said the same thing. If this were true, then Barisan Nasional would have garnered 3.4 million votes while BA would have obtained 3.2 million. This would have changed the results drastically, probably even giving the BA an additional 30 to 40 Parliamentary seats. Looking at the wafer-thin wins the BN candidates obtained, this assumption is more than possible.

BA ‘officially’ won 42 of the Parliament seats contested. BA claims the number would have been between 70 to 80 — if the elections had been free and fair. All they needed was 65 seats to deny BN its two-thirds majority in Parliament.

But, in 1999, this did not happen, when it could have — and the opposition has missed the boat for this to become a reality, as the 11th General Election in March 2004 proved. Thereafter, the opposition’s fortunes went further downhill and it may never recover in some time to come, at least not in this generation.

In the March 2004 General Election, Barisan Nasional won 62.37% (less than two-thirds) of the votes but 198 or 90.4% of the 219 seats in Parliament, bettering the ruling party’s 1974 General Election performance. The oppostion won only 20 seats and one seat went to an independent candidate. And the voter turnout in some constituencies miraculously exceeded 100%.

Expect this to be the scenario for the 12th General Election as well that may be held around 2008 to 2009.


Simple, the factors prevailing in 2004 are still prevailing today and would probably continue into 2008/2009. To expect to resurrect the 1999 conditions would be unrealistic as the factors that saw the opposition’s fortunes decline last year has not changed for the better.

Religious intolerance and racial polarisation are still a major problem and Malaysians will never become united against the ruling Barisan Nasional because of differences over these two issues. And all Malaysians, irrespective of race and religion, are equally guilty of this crime. And the proof is very visible in the comments posted in Malaysia Today’s blog.

Unless, of course the economy collapses. They, maybe, the oppostion would have some hope.

Further reading:

1) 2004 General Election results
2) 1999 General Election results
3) Detailed analysis of the results of 11th General Election by Parliament Seats