Direct democracy options for Malaysia: referendums and recall elections

Photography: Benoît Lopez

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In 2004, Venezuela, very divided and hyper partisan, organized a recall referendum on the dismissal or the maintenance of its charismatic leader, Hugo Chavez.

In this South American nation, all popularly elected positions are subject to removal through a removal mechanism. The country is unique in widely applying this mechanism, not even sparing President Chavez. The opposition in Venezuela collected signatures in 2003, but the process of validating the signatures was marked by controversy.

In 2004, Venezuela’s Election Management Body (CNE) certified that the opposition had collected enough signatures to trigger a recall vote. The question to voters was whether they would agree to revoke Chavez’s tenure as president. With a turnout of 70%, 58% of voters voted to keep Chavez and the rest chose to sack him. Chavez survived the recall attempt.

In Asia, we saw a similar example of recall elections held in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where voters chose to sack the mayor in 2020.

Both cases are fine examples of direct democracy in action within a representative democracy.

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In this article, we at Tindak Malaysia would like to explain what direct democracy options could be considered for Malaysia.

In simpler terms, direct democracy is a form of democracy that allows citizens to participate and decide for themselves specific issues or policies. It’s different from representative democracy, where citizens vote for an elected representative to adopt policies for the people who voted for them.

Malaysia’s post-2018 general election era has exposed various weaknesses in representative democracy. Most voters in Malaysia now realize that they don’t have much control over politicians, which can create disillusion and apathy.

Meanwhile, we can see groups like Bersih calling for initiatives such as recall elections to address the never-ending problems of party defections.

With all of this in mind, Tindak Malaysia will briefly explore three mechanisms of direct democracy: referendums, recall elections and participatory budgeting.


A referendum is a vote in which all people in a country or region are invited to give their opinion or to decide on an important political or social issue.

Referendums on key issues such as the distribution of oil revenues among regions of Malaysia or questions about re-establishing local council elections would be better verified by the public than divided opinions in political party halls.

There are a few types of referendums that Tindak Malaysia advocates: mandatory and optional versions.

Mandatory referendums are expected to cover certain topics such as the admission of new territories to Malaysia and significant changes to specific articles of the Federal Constitution. Citizens should vote when faced with such drastic change proposals.

Optional referendums are not legally required to be held, but they can be initiated by the government, members of the legislature or a number of citizens.

For example, we might consider holding a referendum to re-establish local council elections, as our politicians on both sides have yet to vote on this. Any citizen of the federation aged 18 and over can launch a referendum on municipal elections.

Subsequently, this call should be supported by the signatures of 10% of the voters registered in the federation. Such a call must be formulated in the form of a general proposal or a specific project (ie amending part of the Constitution).

This appeal is submitted to the voters. If 50% plus one of the registered voters participating in the referendum approves the reinstatement of local council elections, Parliament initiates the bill for approval. The result of the referendum should be binding unless 75% of parliamentarians vote against the result.

Referendums can re-engage citizens within the framework of representative democracy and resolve deep divisions within the government of the day in whether or not certain laws are applied.

While referendums can be costly and require a higher level of voter awareness on key issues, the benefits of referendums outweigh our current inability to influence the direction of the country.

If referendums are passed in Malaysia, it will require amendments to our Federal Constitution.

Reminder of elections

A recall election is a mechanism that allows voters to terminate the term of an elected representative if they are able to meet the requirement to initiate a recall vote.

There are three major considerations regarding recall elections: the requirement for recall, the holding of the recall vote, and the choice of successor when an elected leader is dismissed.

In Malaysia, a dismissal mechanism should be applied to elected representatives at the state level (state legislatures) and at the federal level (including the Prime Minister).

There are two ways to display the grounds for dismissal elections: unrestricted or restricted.

Unrestricted recall elections help voters eliminate underperforming or unpopular mid-term politicians.

Restricted revocation elections impose certain triggering conditions such as party defections, serious misconduct or failure to respect manifesto promises.

As recall elections depend on the will of the voters, the main strength of unrestricted recall elections is their flexibility. Unrestricted recall elections can handle the wide range of party defections and the performance of politicians.

In Malaysia, we propose that recall elections be called no earlier than one year after the official term and at least one year after the automatic dissolution of parliament or state legislature.

We suggest the following steps:

  • A recall election must be initiated by a voter with the signatures of at least 1% of the voters in the constituency. The reminder must include a specific proposition such as “must [title and name of elected representative, the name of constituency he or she represents] be recalled (removed) from the Dewan Rakyat / State Legislature? “
  • Signatures should only be collected once the proposed recall initiative is successfully filed with the Election Commission. Four months are allowed to collect signatures
  • All signatures must be verified before the start of the recall vote
  • The recall vote will only be called if there is a verified collection of signatures from 10% of the constituency’s registered voters (registered at the time of the petition launch) before the recall takes place.
  • The process of a recall vote and the appointment of the successor should be separated. The recall vote must be initiated within 60 days after the preconditions for the recall vote are met
  • The incumbent is removed if a majority of registered voters participating in the recall vote vote to remove the incumbent.
  • Once the incumbent has been removed from office, the Speaker of the State House or Legislative Assembly informs the Election Commission of the vacancy. A by-election is called
  • The defeated incumbent should have the right to stand in by-elections
  • To avoid abuse if the revocation election fails to revoke the holder, another revocation process should not be initiated against the holder within a specific period.[D1] (say, the next 12 months)

The above process can be fine-tuned to reduce its shortcomings.

Recall elections are expensive and abuse-prone mechanisms (from collecting signatures to intending to recall). However, adjusting the thresholds for initial signature collection and recall voting, as well as clear rules on signature collection, can mitigate the impact of misuse.

We, Tindak Malaysia, argue that the advantages of recall elections outweigh their disadvantages. The flexibility of recall elections cannot be underestimated.

As with referendums, the establishment of recall elections will require amendments to our Federal Constitution.

NEXT: The Third Option Of Direct Democracy – Participatory Budgeting, Which Does Not Require Constitutional Amendment

Danesh Prakash Chacko is Director and Research Analyst of Tindak Malaysia at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development (Sunway University)

Fork Yow Leong is an activist from Tindak Malaysia and specializes in law

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