Alternatives to First-Past-The-Post system

If the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system is problematic, what options do we have? To borrow Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s latest slogan, there are “endless possibilities” in the choice of electoral system. Just because we have been eating Mackerel yesterday and the day before yesterday, it doesn’t mean we have to eat Mackerel today and tomorrow.

Wong Chin Huat,

If the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system is problematic, what options do we have?

Based on the works of political scientists Douglas Rae (1967) and Andreas Blais (1998), an electoral system has six elements:

(a) number of votes

(b) types of votes, whether it is nominal, ordinal or numerical

(c) object of votes, ie, individuals or teams

(d) constituency nature, ie, one or many constituencies

(e) constituency magnitude, ie, number of seats; and

(f) formula, whether it is plurality, majoritarian, or proportional.

Under this framework, FPTP, or officially known as Single-Member-Plurality, is an electoral system where a voter is given one ballot, a nominal ballot to choose between individual candidates, in a single-member constituency, and a candidate needs only a plurality to win.

For legislative elections, FPTP will have many constituencies.

FPTP is the simplest one of all but as we have seen, hardly the best one. By varying these elements differently, we can then have different electoral systems.

I will introduce two of them which may be featured in future debates.

The first is Australia’s Preferential Voting system advocated passionately by Prof Clive Kessler, a renowned Malaysianist from Australia in his chapter in the book “Elections and Democracy in Malaysia” (edited by Dr Mavis Puthucheary and Prof Norani Othman) as well as some Australia returnees.

The second is Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system in Germany and New Zealand, which the Election Commission has expressed interest to study and emulate.

The Australian option – Preferential Voting

Also used in presidential elections in India and Ireland and parliamentary elections in Papua New Guinea and Fiji, the Australian system is similar to our FPTP in three ways: first, it has many legislative districts; second, each district elects only a single member; and third, the voters are to choose amongst individual candidates.

The system differs from FPTP in the ballot structure and the electoral formula.

Firstly, the Australian ballot is ordinal, where candidates are ranked. When it comes to the number of candidates to be ranked, there are two variants.

Under the Alternative Vote (AV) variant, applicable for the state elections in New South Wales and Queensland, the voters can choose only as many candidates as they like. 

Under the Compulsory Preferential Voting variant, applicable for Australia’s federal and other state elections, the voters have to rank all candidates.

Secondly, to win one must obtain a majority, not just plurality – in other words, the winner must have more supporters than opponents.

If a candidate wins more than half of the first-preference votes, he or she will be declared the winner, much like our FPTP. However, if no candidate does so, the weakest candidate will be removed and his/her votes will be redistributed to the remaining candidates based on the second preference of these votes. 

This process will continue until a candidate which commands a majority support is produced. You bet, the counting will take some time.