KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's parliament has passed a controversial proposal put forward by Prime Minister Najib Razak to redraw electoral boundaries ahead of looming polls, after 129 voted for and 80 voted against it on Wednesday (Mar 28).
The opposition and other critics said the proposed electoral boundaries would give Najib's ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which is facing arguably its toughest polls since independence over 60 years ago, an easy win by putting large numbers of opposition-leaning voters into fewer seats and dividing constituencies along racial lines.
Malaysia practices a first-past-the-post system so a party can win the polls if they secure the most number of seats rather than the greatest number of votes.
"Assuming the voters go back to voting the same way (they did in the last polls), then BN would win eight more seats this round," predicted Wong Chin-Huat from Penang goverment-backed think-tank Penang Institute.
"But we are talking about 5 million voters who did not vote the last round. So if they turn out to vote or if the existing voters change their voting pattern, then things are not fixed."
The Bill's introduction was delayed by about an hour after opposition lawmakers objected.
Things got heated with one veteran opposition, Lim Kit Siang, kicked out even before the debates began.
He was allowed to return eventually, but Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Azalina Othman raised a motion to suspend him from Parliament for six months.
The redelineation report was drawn up by the Election Commission (EC),which is tasked to review electoral boundaries once at least every eight years. The government said the report is free from political interference although there have been claims otherwise.
"The government did not disturb or influence the EC in their work, and respects decisions made by EC in the interest of the people and the country," Najib told Parliament as he tabled the report.
He added that it was time redelineation was carried out after three polls using the old election maps.
Parliamentary opposition Wan Azizah was not convinced, however.
"We protested it because it is deemed to be in favour of the people in power," she said in a news conference after the vote.
"But as we said, all of us are hopeful and we pray that Malaysians voters sensitised and vote for change."
LARGE OPPOSITION SEATS
Parliamentarians were given 10 minutes each to argue for or against the content of the reports.
Five opposition MPs argued that the distribution of voters across seats was not even and tried to dismiss the report. The redrawing of boundaries means that some large pro-opposition constituencies have more than 100,000 voters, while some pro-government seats are much smaller.
For instance, in Selangor, the biggest parliamentary constituency would be Damansara - held by the opposition - with 150,439 voters, while the smallest one would be Sabak Bernam - held by BN - at 37,126.
"Selangor is a state that in terms of popular vote overwhelmingly voted for the opposition," said Ibrahim Suffian, the director of independent pollster Merdeka Centre.
"Therefore by simple rule of thumb, you'd think it'd be harder for the opposition to catch up but what we've noticed is that the seats that have been redelineated have changed in such a way that it would favour the ruling coalition."
The country's richest state and one of the few controlled by the opposition will see voter demographics change in 18 of its 22 parliamentary seats.
Johor, where the ruling coalition is expected to face a tough battle, will see changes to 19 of its 26 parliamentary seats.
Electoral boundaries were last changed in 2003, under the leadership of then-premier Mahathir Mohamad. He, too, was accused of manipulating the process in favour of the ruling coalition, which has held power since independence in 1957.
Mahathir, 92, who led Malaysia for 22 years, is now running as the opposition's candidate for prime minister against Najib.
A general election must be held by August, but Najib is widely expected to call elections in a matter of days, Reuters reported. The proposal will not change the number of parliamentary or state seats.
Earlier on Wednesday, hundreds of pro-democracy activists and opposition party leaders marched to parliament carrying banners and placards.
Security was heightened at parliament's main gate, which was blocked by riot police, some armed with teargas guns.
"We totally do not agree with the (EC) report. This is the biggest cheating to ever happen," said Maria Chin Abdullah, the former chairwoman of civil society group, Bersih, who will now contest under an opposition logo.
"They want to bulldoze the report that contradicts the constitution, ignores the rule of law and manipulates the electoral rolls," she said.
BN Selangor chief and minister Noh Omar, however,believes the protests were just a ploy.
"You must understand this about the opposition. If they think they might lose, they'll find an excuse for it or create a perception," he said.
" If they lose in polls, then they'll blame it on redelineation. I think the opposition especially in Selangor feel they may lose so they're politicising redelineation eventhough the figures show that the distribution of voters and state seats are now more fair."
Additional reporting by Sumisha Naidu