Malaysia general election concept. close up hand of a person casting a ballot at elections during voting on canvas Malaysia flag background. Photo: iStock
Malaysia general election concept. close up hand of a person casting a ballot at elections during voting on canvas Malaysia flag background. Photo: iStock

On May 9, voters across Malaysia will go to the polls to elect the country’s next parliament after five years marked by financial scandals and political revivals. Since the last vote five years ago, when opposition parties under the banner of Anwar Ibrahim won the popular vote but failed to win a majority of seats, many things have changed.

South of Kuala Lumpur, the two states of Melaka and Negeri Sembilan – government strongholds where the Barisan Nasional coalition has steadily lost votes in recent elections – have now become tentative battlegrounds and prime examples of the high stakes in Malaysia’s upcoming election.

In the last five years, Ibrahim was imprisoned once again and the BN was roiled by the 1MDB scandal. Internal splits in UMNO, the leading party in the coalition led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, ended with the political return of long-ruling former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and the formation of his new BERSATU party.

BERSATU promptly turned its back on UMNO and joined the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition. Mahathir and his acolytes have taken to the campaign trail across the country, targeting the same rural Malay constituency that forms the base of UMNO and PAS, a rival Islamist party that quit the opposition in 2015.

While polling data in Malaysia is scarce, recent polls conducted by Invoke Malaysia and Institut Darul Ehsan indicated that the Mahathir-led PH could sweep most of peninsular Malaysia and defeat the BN for the first time since the country’s independence in 1957. Critics of the studies note that both polling institutions are funded by or linked to the opposition, and the BN has one unassailable advantage: widespread gerrymandering.

“With unfair electoral redelineation, voter turnout issues, three-corner fights, limited penetration of East Malaysia and lower resources, the opposition faces a steep uphill battle,” says Bridget Welsh, associate professor of political science and director of Asian outreach at John Cabot University. “Najib and the BN have structural advantages that are difficult to overcome.”

Gerrymandering In Melaka

In the small coastal state of Melaka, the opposition won two of the state’s six seats in the 2013 election, marking an improvement on the previous vote in 2008. Home to just under a million people, the state’s urbanizing population mirrors Malaysia’s demographics, turning it into a potential target for a newly energized PH.

Those hopes may have been dashed in March. Najib pushed a redelineation of electoral boundaries through parliament, packing opposition voters into smaller districts and strengthening the BN’s advantages. Those changes make Melaka a less hopeful proposition for the PH, which is instead pinning its hopes on larger states like Kedah and nearby Johor.

“Najib set a target to recapture Hang Tuah Jaya constituency, formerly named Bukit Katil, and polling districts with strong support for the opposition were transferred out into the neighbouring opposition stronghold of Kota Melaka to weaken the opposition votes in Bukit Katil.” said Chan Tsu Chong, outreach officer for Bersih 2.0, a coalition of NGOs that campaign for free and fair elections in Malaysia. “This is known as gerrymandering via packing.”

Farmers in Negeri Sembilan

On its northern side, Melaka is surrounded by the largely agricultural state of Negeri Sembilan, which is also home to the largest Indian Malaysian population in the country. As in neighboring Melaka, the BN has poured funds into local infrastructure projects to shore up its appeal in a state dominated by farmers dependent on the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA).

The upcoming vote promises to be the most unpredictable election in Malaysia’s history

From its foundation in 1956 to the early 1990s, FELDA granted land to Malaysians living in rural areas and allowed them to farm small plots in settlements scattered across the country. Many of the 112,000 settlers are located in Negeri Sembilan, and local anger has grown over an ongoing corruption scandal at a FELDA-linked commodities firm that forced the government to grant farmers millions of dollars in compensation.

“Younger generations of FELDA settlers generally feel more angst and potential opposition to BN, and Negeri Sembilan is one of those contested areas,” said Welsh. “The FELDA scandal has been an issue, but more substantively the issue of loss of land and limited social mobility.”

Divided opposition

While Mahathir’s reinvention as an anti-Najib crusader will undoubtedly boost the PH’s appeal in the Malay heartland, PAS’s exit from the coalition will trigger a countless number of three-cornered fights – a move that could hand the BN an edge in competitive seats across the country. PAS also recently announced it would contest more seats in states like Melaka, further denting the opposition’s hopes of winning a majority in parliament.

“Roughly, the three-way contests will affect a third of the seats in the country and broadly advantages BN although not exclusively,” said Welsh. “The key will be Mahathir and the sense of inclusion of Malay voices.”

The upcoming vote still promises to be the most unpredictable election in Malaysia’s history. The result ultimately hinges on the PH’s ability to overcome the enormous obstacles posed by the BN’s control of the airwaves and the redelineation process.

“Of course the final results will be determined by many other factors, so the upcoming general election will still be competitive,” says Chan. “However, the redelineation has provided a big and unfair advantage to the BN.”

Giacomo Tognini

Giacomo Tognini is a London-born Italian journalist currently based in the United States. A longtime resident of Southeast Asia, his articles have been published in Bloomberg News, the Huffington Post, Worldcrunch, and the Jakarta Globe.

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