KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 9 — The revival of the Federal Territories (FT) Ministry now helmed by Dr Zaliha Mustafa has brought the return of local council elections back into the media spotlight since its suspension in 1964.
With Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim not being entirely dismissive of the idea despite backlash from the Opposition and open to discussing the matter within the Cabinet, several proponents of the third vote have urged amending relevant laws as the first step if Putrajaya is serious.
“For the Peninsular states, the legal obstacle can be removed either by the Parliament repealing Section 15(1) of the Local Government Act 1976, or by any state government suspending Section 15(1) for the application in the whole or part of the state concerned under the provision of Section 1(4),” Sunway University’s political scientist Wong Chin Huat told Malay Mail.
Section 15(1) states that all provisions relating to local government elections shall cease to have force or effect and Section 1(4) of the Act states that the state authority may exempt any area within any local authority area from all or any of the provisions of the Act or any by-laws.
Electoral watchdog Tindak Malaysia shared the same sentiment in altering legislation, but its director Danesh Prakash Chacko said that Putrajaya should first amend the Federal Capital Act 1960 (KL), Perbadanan Putrajaya Act 1995 (Putrajaya) and Perbadanan Labuan Act 2001 (Labuan) — all regarding the administration of the three FTs — to allow for local council elections to take place.
Additionally, following staunch opposition from Perikatan Nasional towards the idea, the newly-appointed chairman of watchdog Bersih, Muhammad Faisal Abdul Aziz, said that the government needs to give everyone a voice to identify the concerns and needs before such implementation.
“We need to have a platform to listen to all concerns from all parties, civil society organisations, local leaders like residents’ associations, political parties,” he said, noting that local council elections have not been around in decades.
“Through these consultations, we may know the model of the election to be implemented: whether the elections would be based on the number of councillors or the president of municipal council or mayor,” he said.
They also suggested that political parties have been rejecting the proposal due to the uncertainties posed by an additional layer of election towards their future and existence.
Besides the Opposition, Umno’s Dauk Lokman Noor Adam has also expressed his party’s rejection of the third vote, while Local Government Development Minister Nga Kor Ming from Pakatan Harapan has also been dismissive of it.
“All political parties, in one form or another, have benefitted from the appointment system. Hence, this is the main obstacle to the implementation,” Danesh said.
However, Wong said he believes that the resistance by Malay-dominated parties is driven by the insistence on maintaining Malay dominance even in non-Malay-majority townships and the monopolist mentality of wanting to keep local councils as patronage given to junior leaders in their respective parties which is also a sentiment shared amongst non-Malay politicians.
“The other obstacle to overcome is the partisan resistance across all state ruling parties because they want to monopolise the council seats and also to prevent local councils from outperforming or becoming autonomous from the state governments.
“To overcome such partisan resistance, parties need to be convinced why the revival of local elections suits their interest in states beyond their strongholds. Also, a discussion on devolution of power from the federal government to the states has to happen to assure the states that they would not lose their relevance with local elections,” he disclosed.
Besides political interests, Wong and Danesh have slammed the fear-mongering and race-baiting by the Islamist party PAS which alleged that the elections could cause Kuala Lumpur to be politically dominated by the ethnic Chinese.
“Six decades after the suspension of local elections in 1964, our demographic has changed vastly —Malays are largely urban, and urban are largely Malay,” Wong said, acknowledging that local elections would produce more diverse local governments.
Similarly, Tindak Malaysia provided data from its research has shown that Kuala Lumpur is dominated by Bumiputeras.
In combating the racial attacks, Danesh suggested the first step would be to throw the book at those who spread disinformation to create racial tension. He noted that while accurate data is important to combat disinformation, it cannot prevent its spread.
“Secondly, the government of the day must convince all political party stakeholders that local elections could utilise different electoral systems through amendments of the Local Government Elections Act 1960 and such electoral systems will ensure appropriate representation of the area.
“Stakeholders from political parties must be made to understand that local elections prevent them being electorally wiped out in the event of losing state governments” Danesh asserted.
Conversely, Wong believes that combating racial attacks and disinformation should be dealt with by showing the public the possible outcomes of local council elections.
“It is not about the rise of Chinese or non-Malay dominance, which is demographically and politically impossible, but the replacement of Malay dominance by multi-ethnic inclusion in some local authorities.”
“There needs to be a real debate from the communal interest of Malay-Muslims. How much would they gain in terms of better policies by having an elected government?” he asked referring to better welfare and service, greater efficiency and responsiveness, less wastage and corruption.
“How much would they lose if local governance becomes more inclusive?” he asked again, highlighting the importance of recognising the needs of the ethnic minority.
All three of them however agreed that Kuala Lumpur would benefit from local council elections, its residents would have a channel to hold authorities accountable and its MPs would be able to focus on their duties as lawmakers without being sidetracked by local problems.
“In comparison with the states, Federal Territories especially Kuala Lumpur are best placed for local governments. Second, there is no state government to fear loss of its own relevance,” Wong said.
“Perikatan Nasional (PN) may gain seats. 166,056 (19 per cent) KL voters went for PN, even larger than 136,720 BN voters (16 per cent), but they have no representation in Parliament because they are not geographically concentrated.
“If there is a federal territory election, the constituencies would be smaller than the parliamentary constituencies. This means PN has a good chance to win some representation and expand their base. I cannot understand why PN is afraid of an election,” he added.
Last month, Anwar had criticised the Opposition for fearmongering about local council elections, after it was brought up by federal government coalition member DAP recently.
The Pakatan Harapan chairman said the Malay community’s position in the country is secure, and the group should instead be encouraged to reach greater heights rather than being held back with a siege mentality.