Electoral maps for upcoming Malaysia election passed in Parliament

Hundreds of supporters of the Malaysian electoral reform group Bersih gathering outside Parliament in Kuala Lumpur on March 28 to protest against the tabling of changes to the country's electoral boundaries. ST PHOTO: NADIRAH H. RODZI
Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaking to protesters outside Parliament in Kuala Lumpur on March 28. ST PHOTO: NADIRAH H. RODZI
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at a 1Malaysia Development Berhad event for the Special Haj Sponsorship Programme in Putrajaya, Malaysia on Feb 2, 2018.

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's new electoral maps for the upcoming election, were passed in Parliament on Wednesday (March 28), hours after it was presented by Prime Minister Najib Razak, amid heavy criticism from the opposition for gerrymandering.

The new electoral maps were bulldozed through with the ruling coalition and opposition given one hour each for debates and Parliament's speaker calling for vote after.

The new maps was passed with 129 votes. Malaysia's parliament requires a simple majority of 112 votes to pass the electoral boundary changes. Eighty votes dissented on the motion

The Election Commission (EC), the government body under the Prime Minister's Department tasked with redrawing electoral boundaries, has been accused by critics and opposition lawmakers of creating electoral maps that favour the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN).

In his parliamentary speech, Datuk Seri Najib sought to defend his administration against critics. "The government has not interfered or influenced the EC in doing its duties, moreover the government always respects decisions made by the EC, for the good of all, for the sake of people and country," he said, to jeers from the opposition.

Opposition MPs had attempted to stop the presentation of the redelineation maps with the argument that there are ongoing court cases challenging the delimitation exercise by the EC.

However, the challenge was thrown out by the Speaker of Parliament on account of Parliament's power being separate from that of the court.

Veteran opposition lawmaker Lim Kit Siang was given a six-month suspension from Parliament by Speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia after questioning reasons for the embargo on the redelineated maps.

Mr Najib told Parliament that it is "tough" to have evenly distributed seats with almost equal number of voters due to "rural areas that have different topography and demographics".

Earlier on Wednesday morning, former premier turned opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad turned up at a protest held by electoral reform group Bersih, two hours before his former protege, Mr Najib, presented the redelineated maps in Parliament.

The 200-strong crowd gathered at the National Monument - a symbolic sculpture marking the country's fight for freedom just 500m away from Parliament - called for the withdrawal of the redelineated maps.

Tun Dr Mahathir, once criticised for his dictatorial-style leadership and accused of allowing gerrymandering in previous redelineations during his 22 years in power, took another stab at Mr Najib on Wednesday.

"We have to be brave to oppose it. Najib won't know whom you vote for. Don't be afraid," Dr Mahathir told the crowd.

Based on the maps, which retain the 222-seat composition in Parliament, boundaries were redrawn to pack voters deemed as lost cause to BN into certain constituencies, creating superseats that would likely be won by the opposition. In return, multiple smaller seats have been created that favour BN, based on racial and party lines.

Remote video URL

According to analysts, the state that saw the most blatant changes is Selangor. The country's richest state has been helmed by federal opposition pact Pakatan Harapan (PH) for nearly a decade, with BN vying to win back the coveted state in the upcoming polls.

"Pakatan Harapan would become weak but it won't lose the state," said Mr Wong Chin Huat, analyst at the Penang Institute.

"The state government is quite popular with the people but they (PH) won't have the comfortable majority they got in 2013," added Mr Wong.

All of Selangor's parliamentary seats held by PH are affected by the redelineation, except for the Sepang constituency. PH holds 16 parliamentary seats out of the 22 in Selangor.

In the state assembly, PH holds 29 of the 56 state seats. Another opposition party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), holds 13 while BN has 11 seats. There are two independents and one vacant seat.

In 2013, PH collaborated with PAS, allowing it to obtain the majority to retain the Selangor state government.

According to opposition MP Ong Kian Ming, the changes result in the packing of seats, vastly increasing the number of Malay voters.

One example is the Sungai Buloh seat, with the proportion of Malay voters increasing from 47 per cent to 64 per cent, after the redrawing of boundaries.

Selangor state will see the most number of seats nationwide experiencing a name change, with name changes affecting five parliamentary seats and nine state assembly seats.

In the last election in 2013, BN lost the majority vote, but scraped through with a simple majority of 131 seats out of 222. It lost its two-thirds majority of 148 seats.

Data crunched by analysts has shown that constituencies won by BN have fewer voters than PH - 48,000 voters versus 79,000. This paints a picture of the opposition having won areas with larger numbers of voters in the 2013 polls.

Malaysia has 14.6 million registered voters, and analysts say that BN needs to win only 33 per cent of those votes to retain power.

"To form a simple majority in government in Malaysia, you need to win 112 seats out of 222," said Mr Danesh Chacko, an analyst with electoral reform group Tindak Malaysia.

"Since there is significant disparity among the seat populations from Perlis to Sabah, the first 112 smallest seats amount to 33 per cent of the voters of the country," he said.

The number of voters varies widely in constituencies, which constitutes malapportionment, with the smallest Malaysian constituency in 2013 having 15,700 voters (Putrajaya) but equals one seat, while the biggest area (Kapar) has about 145,000 voters, also making up one seat.

Remote video URL

In an ongoing court proceeding filed by the Selangor state government challenging the redelineation process undertaken by the Election Commission, it was revealed that a parliamentary seat - Petaling Jaya Utara - was renamed Damansara, and now has 150,000 voters after the redelineation. It previously had 84,000 voters.

The move by the EC in creating imbalances between constituencies has also been criticised as unconstitutional since a provision of the Federal Constitution requires the number of voters within each seat in a state to be roughly equal to one another.

This has resulted in charges of malapportionment and gerrymandering, the manipulation of electoral boundaries to favour a certain party or class.

The EC has vehemently denied the accusations in a statement following a report by The Economist on the upcoming polls.

"The EC denies claims that there is manipulation in the electoral system and in the redelineation exercise to ensure the victory of specific parties in the 14th general election," the commission's chairman Hashim Abdullah said in the statement.

Refuting the article by the British magazine, Tan Sri Hashim added: "The EC feels that the statements made are slanderous in nature and are not based on concrete evidence and are meant to confuse."

Malaysia's Parliament is likely to be dissolved within days, and polls are expected to be held by May at the latest.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.