Speculation grows over early polls in Malaysia

Proposed changes to voting districts seen as bid to help BN win back seats at next election

Parti Amanah Negara, Barisan Nasional (BN) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) contested the seat in Sungai Besar, Selangor. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Malaysia's Election Commission yesterday published changes to voting districts, fuelling speculation that polls will be held next year.

Although the amendments do not create any new parliamentary seats, opposition parties said the changes will result in the movement of supporters in marginal areas, and that could help embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak's Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition win back the seats it lost in the past decade.

Datuk Seri Najib has been attacked both at home and abroad in the wake of graft allegations involving US$700 million (S$940 million) found in his personal accounts. As a result, some top officials in the ruling party Umno have left a government that is facing widespread unhappiness, according to opinion polls.

Despite this, reports point to possible elections by March next year - more than a year before Parliament's mandate expires.

Earlier this month, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the party faithful should support those chosen to contest in the coming polls instead of protesting against the selection.

Some of the BN's component parties said they have nearly finalised their list of candidates, and MCA has already announced some of its candidates. Malaysia redraws its electoral boundaries every decade - the last time was in 2003, just a year before BN won 91 per cent of the seats in Parliament. However, in the last two elections, the ruling coalition suffered setbacks. It lost its customary two-thirds majority, and in the 2013 election, it lost the popular vote for the first time.

The Election Commission's proposals, published in major newspapers such as the New Straits Times, reveal major changes to the names of seats held by the opposition in their west coast stronghold, while tens of thousands of voters could be moved into different districts.

Democratic Action Party (DAP) publicity chief Tony Pua said 54,902 voters from Bukit Lanjan were transferred to his Damansara constituency - renamed Petaling Jaya Utara (PJU) - helping to create a constituency of 150,439 voters. That is about nine times the size of the administrative capital of Putrajaya, which is held by the BN.

He said: "PJU had the second-highest majority of 44,672 in the 2013 general election and is, in all probability, deemed unwinnable by BN.

"Bukit Lanjan, on the other hand, contributed a 17,200-vote majority to the Subang Parliament... Now, it is left with a much-reduced estimated majority of only 9,519 votes."

Malaysians have 30 days to lodge any protests against the changes. The commission did not publish electoral maps that, analysts said, would have given a clearer picture of how pockets of voters might have been moved around.

"The changes, so far, lend credence to the suspicion that the redistricting exercise will likely be at the opposition's disadvantage," said Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian.

Most changes, he said, are to the states of Perak and Selangor - home to a large number of opposition lawmakers - where "significant changes make previously safe opposition seats become marginal".

Last year, a Merdeka Centre survey found that only 23 per cent of voters were happy with the government. Among Malays, only 31 per cent expressed satisfaction.

Since then, allegations that Mr Najib received money belonging to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) have grown, especially after the United States in July moved to seize US$1 billion in assets siphoned from the troubled state investor.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2016, with the headline Speculation grows over early polls in Malaysia. Subscribe