2018/65, 17 May 2018
Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) colossal victory in GE14 sprang from a nationwide surge in its popularity and collapse of confidence in the 61-year ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) regime, but PH’s spectacular success in Selangor is exceptional.
BN manipulated electoral boundaries to engineer favourable conditions, were most aggressive in Selangor, and disregarded the constitutional and democratic underpinnings of the electoral system.
The constitution provides for electoral boundaries to be redelineated every eight years or more. The previous exercise happened in 2003, prior to the 2004 general elections. Parliamentary and state constituency boundaries can be redrawn, taking into account population growth, administrative coherence and local ties, and apportioning voters so as to avoid inordinate disparity between small and large constituencies. Malaysia’s urbanization warrants an increasing the proportion of urban constituencies. Urban areas are also more ethnically diverse.
However, Malaysia’s electoral system has been plagued for decades by malapportionment, specifically, vast disparities between rural and urban constituencies. Rural parliamentary seats, residing in the UMNO-BN heartland, can have as few as 40,000 voters, while many urban seats which have become PH strongholds in the past decade, have well above 100,000 voters. This diminishes the vote and representation of the urban electorate.
Malaysia’s redelineation exercise, performed by the Election Commission, was mired in controversy and rushed through parliament on 28 March 2018. Rural and semi-urban seats held by BN were hardly touched. The number of voters in BN seats, on average, decreased by 623, from 54,552 to 53,928. In stark contrast, the size of PH held seats increased by 3,071, from 104,786 to 107,857. The new boundaries in Selangor not only perpetuated malapportionment; they exacerbated the problem.
The second problem of redelineation is gerrymandering, which involves carving in geographic zones and voter segments believed to be favourable to the incumbent government and carving out those tending to vote against the regime. The latest redelineation exercise took this to new extremes, brazenly altering ethnic composition and shuffling around areas based on past voting patterns.
Among the most aggressively gerrymandered parliamentary seats was Kapar, which had a voter profile similar to the Selangor ethnic profile of 50% Malays, 34% Chinese, 15% Indians. Kapar went from 55% Malay, 31% Chinese, 14% Indian to 71% Malay, 15% Chinese, 14% Indian. Even then, PH managed a comfortable win in GE14, by a margin of 16,300 votes.
The same phenomenon transpired in the Selangor state assembly seats. The Edge, in its 9 April 2018 issue, suggested that seven redelineated PH- or PAS-held seats might fall to BN, based on transfers of voters and GE13 results. Of these, Sementa was the most affected, with its ethnic composition changed from 45% Malay, 26% Chinese, 28% Indian to 72% Malay, 15% Chinese, 11% Indian. PH won with a 7,800 majority in GE13, but carved into Sementa about 9,000 voters from previously BN-leaning, highly Malay majority areas. In GE14, PH retained the seat with a 5,400 majority.
The Selangor electorate upended the redelineation exercise, giving PH 20 of 22 parliament seats and 51 of 56 state assembly seats.
This decisive outcome must not detract from PH’s promised electoral system reforms. Institutionalizing independence, integrity, and credibility in the Election Commission, to present electoral boundaries that can gain bi-partisan support in parliament, remain imperative.
Dr Lee Hwok-Aun is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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