While violence against a popular electoral reform group has stolen the headlines in Malaysia, a quieter yet more critical fight is brewing in the country’s heated political landscape.
The attacks on supporters of Bersih – a coalition of NGOs seeking to reform the country’s electoral system to ensure free, clean and fair elections – come as the group attempts to drum up support for its rally in the capital on November 19 that will call for the resignation of scandal tainted Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Pro-government Red Shirts targeted a convoy of Bersih supporters – who wear yellow T-shirts as a symbol of protest – as it toured the country as part of a roadshow to promote the rally. Bersih supporters were kicked, pelted with eggs and some had their vehicles vandalised.
Shocking though the scenes may be, the roadshow is just one aspect of Bersih’s campaign to strengthen Malaysia’s electoral system.
Of greater importance is the massive push by Bersih and other political parties to resist plans by Malaysia’s Election Commission to redraw the boundaries of parliament and state legislative seats.
The commission’s exercise, its critics allege, is fraught with gerrymandering and attempts to rig the electoral map in favour of the ruling Barisan Nasional regime. The exercise is still in the proposal stage and the public has until October 14 to file objections.
But if the proposal passes parliament under its current form, it will affect the next general election scheduled for 2018 and subsequent polls.
The Barisan Nasional is headed by Najib, who has been embroiled in a worldwide graft and money-laundering scandal involving state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Najib’s popularity ratings are at an all time low and in the 2013 general elections, the Barisan Nasional won less than half of all votes cast.
A study by the think tank Penang Institute last month found that there were serious problems with the commission’s plan to redraw boundaries – what it refers to as re-delineation.
Close to one third of 222 parliamentary seats and 600 state legislative seats had elements of “malapportionment”, meaning that the voter populations among them and other seats were drastically uneven.
This meant the fundamental principle of “one person, one vote” had been violated, said Wong Chin Huat, who co-authored the study. He said that in the highly urbanised, rich state of Selangor – which the Barisan Nasional wants to win back – the discrepancies were as high as four votes to one.
“Can the [Electoral Commission] even convince a kindergarten kid that four is approximately equal to one? Does he expect our judges to rule in his favour and tell the world that in Malaysia, four is approximately equal to one?”, Wong wrote in the study.
The Selangor government, which is ruled by the Pakatan Harapan coalition, has said it will take the commission to court over the matter.
“The 2016 exercise is a disgusting and partisan attempt by the Election Commission to gerrymander and malapportion parliament and state seats in Selangor in order to help the Barisan Nasional win back additional parliament and state seats,” wrote Pakatan Harapan parliamentarian Ong Kian Ming.
Another Pakatan Harapan leader, Gooi Hsiao Leung, said the commission had done a similar thing for the Northern state of Kedah, which Pakatan Harapan lost in 2013 but sees itself as having an even chance of regaining in 2018.
Pakatan Harapan politicians have long charged that a rigged electoral map has allowed the Barisan Nasional to gain federal power even as it lost the popular vote. In the 2013 elections, the Barisan Nasional won 59 per cent of all parliament seats – enough to form the government – despite only garnering 47 per cent of all votes cast.
Electoral Commission chairman Mohd Hashim Abdullah denied allegations that the boundary exercise was to benefit certain parties. The exercise was still in the proposal stage, Hashim added.
“The [commission] welcomes every objection and representation but it has to be done officially according to stipulated regulations,” Hashim said.
Pakatan Harapan component parties would be filing objections in about 40 parliamentary constituencies in the coming weeks, said parliamentarian Hatta Ramli. These areas would also include the state seats under them.
“We will go through the objection process first but we are prepared to take the [commission] to court,” said Hatta, who is elections director for Pakatan Harapan component party Amanah.
Wong, of the Penang Institute, said it would be an uphill battle getting the commission to acknowledge these objections and amend its proposed boundaries.
“Unless it’s for minor things like the constituency’s name, they have openly ignored substantive objections in the past,” said Wong.
But he said legal challenges stood a better chance as the constitution had explicit guidelines on drawing the boundaries and these had been ignored by the commission.
For instance, the constitution says the number of voters in each constituency in a state should be “approximately equal” except for certain areas which are hard to reach. But the commission developed a system that classifies seats as urban or rural, which critics say ignores this principle.
Local human rights group Proham said the credibility crisis facing the commission and its exercise was eroding public trust in democracy and the legitimacy of those elected, in this case the Barisan Nasional itself.
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Proham secretary Denison Jayasooria said lop-sided electoral boundaries would impair Malaysia’s goal of reaching developed nation status – a stated aim of Najib’s administration.
“As Malaysia aspires to be a developed nation within the context of parliamentary democracy we must strengthen governance and accountability [issues],” said Denison.
“Ensuring fair elections is the bedrock of democratic governance and the legitimacy of its leaders.”
Sheridan Mahavera is a Kuala Lumpur-based journalist