“Extreme Partisan Gerrymandering Malaysian Style”, a Commentary by Lee Hock Guan

Commentary 2016/64, 26 September 2016

The Election Commission of Malaysia (EC) is a constitutional body entrusted with the task of delineating federal and state constituencies, preparing and revising electoral rolls, and overseeing all federal and state elections. Originally, the EC’s role in the institutionalization of democratic norms through creating and conducting fair and clean elections was ensured by its autonomy and impartiality being guaranteed by the Constitution.

Since independence in 1957, however, successive constitutional amendments to weaken the EC’s authority and autonomy were enacted such that the UMNO-dominated coalition has essentially wrested control over the institution. So the EC has repeatedly manipulated the electoral system to benefit the ruling coalition especially during the re-delineation exercise that is carried out once every eight to ten years. Gerrymandering and malapportionment of constituencies have been effected for the political advantage of BN.

The malapportionment of seats to enhance UMNO’s electoral supremacy has worsened since the delineation rules after 1973 allow rural weightage without clearly limiting it. In the proposed 2016 re-delineation, malapportionment persists notably in the delineation of thirteen parliament seats with more than 100,000 votes namely; Damansara, Bangi, Klang, Petaling Jaya, Subang, Gelang Patah, Kota Raja, Pasir Gudang, Kota Melaka, Kuala Terengganu, Sungai Petani, Tumpat, and Kapar. All but one of the thirteen seats are opposition seats. Conversely, nearly all the delineated seats with less than 50,000 voters are semi-urban and rural seats held by BN especially UMNO.

Unlike in the previous re-delineation exercises, no new federal seats are proposed in the latest exercise probably because the BN do not have the two thirds majority to get them pass through parliament. In terms of state seats, only in Sabah are new seats being proposed. Out of the 13 new state seats delineated, six are Muslim bumiputra majority, two non-Muslim bumiputra majority, four mixed constituencies with an almost equal number of Muslim and non-Muslim bumiputra voters and one Chinese majority. Obviously, the proposed new seats in Sabah would further enhance UMNO dominance in the state.
In the latest re-delineation exercise, it is obvious that the EC has resorted to gerrymandering as the means to advantage the BN. In 2002, the re-delineation exercise was deployed to mitigate the problem of Malay vote swings against the BN, particularly UMNO, and to take advantage of the opposition’s inability to overcome the ethnic voting. The end result was to establish less ethnically dominant seats and more ethnically mixed seats.

In contrast, the current re-delineation exercise revert the 2002 trend precisely to counter the huge Chinese vote swings against the BN and that the opposition has gained the upper hand in mixed seats in the 2008 and especially the 2013 elections. Thus in the latest proposal, the trend is to create more ethnically dominant seats – especially Malay majority seats – and less ethnically mixed seats. UMNO, and potentially PAS, would be the main beneficiary of the latest delineation exercise while the Chinese parties in BN could lose out if they were to contest in seats which have been re-delineated into more Chinese dominant.

Dr Lee Hock Guan is Co-coordinator, Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.