On March 28, a majority of Malaysian parliamentarians accepted a new electoral map that will reportedly affect almost half of the country’s 222 constituencies, a move that is expected to work in the favor of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO)-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
Critics say the redrawing of seat boundaries is intended to stack opposition-held constituencies, typically urban ones, with greater numbers of voters, while reducing the number of voters in seats that are either marginal or typically opt for the ruling coalition, which are mostly rural.
In Britain, this is known as creating “rotten boroughs.” In modern parlance, it’s simple gerrymandering.
Pollsters reckon that the parliamentary seats now held by the ruling BN coalition have just under half the number of voters compared to those controlled by the opposition, 48,000 to 79,000 voters.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has defended the changes, claiming they were necessary due to demographic shifts since the last boundary modification in 2003.
Malaysia has undergone six electoral boundary alterations since 1957, though this is the first that hasn’t increased the number of seats in parliament. But critics and opposition politicians contend the remapping is electoral manipulation at its worst.
Bersih 2.0, an electoral watchdog, has claimed the Election Commission, tasked with designing the boundary reshuffle, did not follow the law by ensuring that the number of voters within constituencies and states is “approximately equal”, an opinion shared by some legal observers.
Maria Chin Abdullah, a prominent activist, has described it as “the biggest cheating to ever happen.” When the motion was put before parliament late last month, members of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition were only allowed one hour to debate it.
Petaling Jaya Utara, an urban constituency in Selangor that is currently controlled by the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), has reportedly been expanded from 84,456 voters to 150,439 voters.
Another example is Melaka’s Bukit Katil constituency, now called Hang Tuah Jaya. It was considered a marginal seat, controlled by the opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR).
But boundary changes have now moved five of its polling districts (roughly 28,000 voters) into another constituency, Kota Melaka, an opposition stronghold.
At the last election, the BN coalition lost Bukit Katil by 6,902 votes. But now with the relocation of 28,000 voters from that constituency, the ruling coalition could win the seat, according to simulations by Bersih 2.0.
At 2013’s general election, the ruling BN coalition won just 47% of the popular vote but secured 60% of parliamentary seats.
Even before the recent redrawing of boundaries, analysts reckoned the opposition coalition needed to win at least 60% of the popular vote to stand a chance of parity in parliament. Now, that figure is likely to be much higher, with some saying it will need to win near 70%.
Moreover, parliament this week passed an anti-fake news law that many think will further stifle already waning free speech. The spreading of “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false” will now result in a possible US$123,000 fine and a maximum six years in jail.
This also extends to foreigners who do not live in Malaysia. One minister has defined fake news as “anything that is not substantive, and dangerous to the economy and security of the nation.” It’s unclear if criticism of the gerrymandering could constitute “fake news” under the law, which still must pass parliament’s upper house.
The reason for the law is simple, analysts say. In 2015, Najib was first accused of embezzling US$681 million from a state development fund, the so-called 1MDB scandal.
While domestic courts found him innocent (he says the money found in his bank account was a gift from a Saudi prince) the US Justice Department and a handful of other nations are still investigating it. Foreign media broke and local media ran with the scandal.
Before the recent redrawing of constituency boundaries, most pollsters thought this year’s general election would be a close-fought contest, coming down to a handful of seats contested by the two grand coalitions.
The opposition’s odds looked good partly because of the participation of Mahathir Mohamad, an ex-premier of 22 years, who is now the prime ministerial candidate for the PH coalition.
In 2016, Mahathir left UMNO, the largest party in the BN coalition, after a falling out with Najib. He went onto form the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM), a Malay-centric party that some political observers reckon will poll well this year. Elections must be held by August.
But the redrawing of boundaries could tip the polls decisively for the BN coalition, analysts say. One simulation contends that had the new constituency map been used during the 2013 general election, the BN coalition would have won 93 seats, not 85, while the opposition would have won 72, not 80.
Some think the BN coalition could now regain its super-majority in parliament, which it lost in 2008.
One chief criticism of the Election Commission’s decision is that it appears to be ethnically driven, a reflection of Malaysia’s politics. Umno has long relied on the Malay-Muslim vote, while the opposition has tended to be more multicultural.
“Fifteen parliamentary constituencies, which were previously mixed constituencies, have transformed into eight Malay-dominant and seven Chinese-dominant constituencies,” political analyst Wong Chin Huat told local media.
He cited Lumut in Perak state, which the opposition won by 12,000 votes in 2013, as an egregious example.
Under the new changes, however, thousands of mainly ethnic-Chinese voters from this constituency will now be considered part of Beruas, another opposition-run seat that is also mainly populated by ethnic-Chinese.
The intention, critics say, is to lump together ethnic-Chinese voters who tend to vote for the opposition in Beruas, while concentrating the Malay Muslim vote in Lumut.
Beruas, moreover, is a 45-minute drive away from Lumut, furthering inconveniencing voters and proving no reason for the change, Wong added.
Najib claims his government “has not interfered or influenced” the Election Commission in its work. And the Commission’s chairman has also dismissed accusations of wrongdoing, describing critical media reports as “slanderous” and intended to “confuse” voters.
There is some irony to the move, however. Mahathir, who led a protest near parliament hours before the re-delineation vote last month, was also guilty of gerrymandering during his 22 years as prime minister.
In 2012, before his split from Umno, he defended the stacking of rural constituencies, commenting that “the poorly serviced rural areas have to be given higher representation in the legislature,” which is exactly the same excuse Najib is now using to redraw the electoral map.
At the time, Mahathir’s other justification was that Western democracies also gerrymander, insinuating it was normal politics worldwide.
Perhaps it was coincidence, then, that on the same day that Malaysia passed its latest changes, US Supreme Court justices ruled over alleged illegal gerrymandering in the state of Maryland.
But improper re-delineation in Britain and America differs from Malaysia in one important aspect: Malaysia has been ruled by the same party since it gained independence, while power changes hands between parties at least every decade or so in the US and UK.
That means when one ruling party gerrymanders, the other usually has the opportunity to readdress the issue once it takes power. That’s not possible in UMNO-ruled Malaysia and likely won’t be any time soon with the recent redrawing of the electoral map.