The recent redrawing of Malaysia’s electoral boundaries, which came into effect on March 29, has caused quite a stir as election fever grips the country. The motion was passed despite strong protests from opposition MPs, as well as civil society groups, who accused the Election Commission of colluding with the government to tip the balance in favour of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. Many have condemned it as an exercise in malapportionment and gerrymandering which will widen existing ethnic divides, adding to a growing anxiety among urban Malaysians that Malaysia is arcing towards authoritarianism despite the budding support for the oppositions at both regional and national levels. For some others, however, the move was not at all surprising, given the long history of accusations of electoral manipulation being employed during elections in Malaysia.
In the 2013 election, for example, BN held on to power without acquiring the popular vote, made possible because of the constant redrawing of electoral boundaries over the years and Malaysia’s ‘first past the post’ system, giving the advantage to BN. Malapportionment and gerrymandering are illegal under Schedule 13 of the Malaysian Constitution.
In a broader context, the redrawing of boundaries, which is likely to result in disproportional distribution of votes in the upcoming election, can be seen as an example of a polarising political trend creeping into South-east Asia.
But is the redrawing of boundaries as effective as many think it will be? A closer examination makes things decidedly murky.