Malaysia elections: Clock ticking on Bersih bid to block new electoral maps

Malaysia elections: Clock ticking on Bersih bid to block new electoral maps

Supporters hold umbrellas as Bersih chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah (not pictured) speaks to journalists amid an August 2015 rally in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan)

KUALA LUMPUR: Electoral watchdog group Bersih 2.0 is rallying the Malaysian public to help block what it calls the "unconstitutional" redrawing of electoral boundaries that analysts say could help the ruling coalition win back its two-thirds majority in the upcoming elections. 

The redelineation could also give Barisan Nasional (BN) a 50-50 shot at recapturing the nation's richest state, Selangor.  

The Election Commission is legally bound to update electoral boundaries based on factors such as population size at least every eight years.

It has done so for every state this time around, except the smallest, Perlis, and the largest, Sarawak - which had its boundaries redrawn ahead of state polls in 2016.

While changes range from tweaks to the ethnic composition of voters to some constituencies having entirely new names, Bersih is particularly concerned at what they call the "packing" of more voters into opposition seats, leaving BN-friendly seats much smaller.


"If you look at most of the way in which delineation has been carried out, the smaller seats actually do provide a better advantage for Barisan Nasional, smaller seats in the sense of having less voters," Bersih chairwoman Maria Chin Abdullah told Channel NewsAsia. 

"Because our system is first past the post, it doesn't matter how many voters you have, so the popular vote doesn't matter. Once you get 50 per cent plus one (of the seats), you win the elections already," she added. 

After trying and failing to halt the process across the rest of the country, including through the courts, Bersih is now focusing on getting the proposed changes in Selangor reviewed to what they believe should be a more balanced distribution of voters.  

With days to go to the Feb 14 deadline, the group wants Selangor voters to come forward on Sunday (Feb 11), at the launch of their nationwide anti-electoral fraud campaign, to sign up as one of the 100,000 objectors they have targeted. A valid objection to the Election Commission's latest proposals has to be backed by 100 signatures or more and be represented by a spokesperson.

"If the Election Commission feels the objections are worth having an enquiry into, they have two weeks to a month to maybe carry them out (before the final report is presented to Parliament to be approved)," she said. "But if they do not have many objections, it will finish very quickly."

Bersih had hoped for more time before the elections, which must be held by August, to challenge the new electoral boundaries.

Last month, however, it was announced there would be a Parliament session in March, which opposition MP Nurul Izzah Anwar said came as a surprise given that Parliament will dissolve automatically in June if polls are not called.

"I believe, and most of us feel, that they will bulldoze the redelineation exercise through then," she said.

If the Election Commission's recommendations are passed in Parliament, they then need to be approved by the King before being gazetted and coming into effect.

WHAT'S AT STAKE

According to the director of independent polling centre Merdeka Centre, Ibrahim Suffian, the proposed changes are significant, particularly for BN.

While the opposition won a greater number of votes overall or the "popular vote" in the last elections, BN won more seats. It needs 15 more to regain the two-thirds majority it first lost in 2008 and redelineation alone could contribute 12 in peninsula Malaysia.

"Based on some analysis we did, we noticed that the ethnic composition in at least a dozen parliamentary seats in peninsula Malaysia will be affected," he told Channel NewsAsia.

"Given that there are certain ethnic voting patterns that favour certain political parties, we feel, or rather the analysis shows, the seats that have been redelineated will give greater advantage to the ruling party."

In Selangor, one of only three states held by the opposition, redelineation exercises could significantly increase BN's chances there even though more than 60 per cent of votes were not in their favour in 2013.

"Just looking at Selangor alone, the prospects improve from not being able to win at all to something close to 50-50," said Mr Ibrahim.

ELECTION COMMISSION DEFENDS PROCESS

The Election Commission has defended its boundary redelineations as routine exercises, carried out in accordance to the law and without bias.

The body, for example, had incorporated feedback from Selangor residents in their latest revised proposal, dropping many of its initial changes - prompting unhappiness from Barisan Nasional.

Selangor BN chief Noh Omar said the new proposal reverts back to the boundaries used in 2013, with imbalanced voter distributions he believes favours the opposition. The Malaysian government too has said there is nothing unusual about how things are being done. 

“It is the same thing that has been done since Day One," Prime Minister Najib Razak told a news conference in January. "There is nothing irregular in what we are doing today."

Source: CNA/hs

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