Are electoral boundaries being redrawn in Malaysia to stifle the opposition vote?

On 15 September 2016, Malaysia’s Election Commission (EC) announced the results of its redelineation review exercise. Redelineation is the redrawing of electoral boundaries, with the purpose of balancing voter populations between constituencies. If passed in Parliament, this would mark the country’s seventh redelineation since independence in 1957, and its first in 13 years. This time around, redelineation has worsened the inequality between differently sized constituencies, and appears biased towards the federal government.

Earlier this year, the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Survey ranked Malaysia as having low to very low electoral integrity, and the third worst country in Asia. This latest proposal will only make things worse.

Malaysia’s electoral system has been historically unfair. The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, ruling since independence, have consistently gained seats disproportionately more than the popular vote suggests it deserves. Mathematically, the opposition experiences the opposite.  (Refer to Graph 1)

In other words, the value of each vote for the BN is worth more than a vote cast to any party outside the BN alliance. During the last general election, one vote to BN was worth 1.2645  votes (based on the percentage of seats won divided by popular vote), while a vote to then-opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat was worth 0.7621 votes. With this, the BN coalition won the elections with 60 per cent of parliamentary seats, despite losing the popular vote at 47 per cent.

As of the 2016 redelineation review, Selangor comprises 22 parliamentary seats and a total electorate size of 2,078,311 people.

While some seats have been shrunk by as much as 40 per cent, others are to be inflated by 80 per cent of their original size. These changes seem to affect opposition seats disproportionately more than ones held by government. None of the five seats won by BN were treated to a population change that exceeds 10 per cent. But 10 out of the 22 seats  currently held by the opposition were subject to a similar change. (Refer to Graph 2)

Significant or not, these changes can only be democratic — and therefore justified — if the sizes of constituencies are equalised. After all, Malaysia’s Constitution  mandates that a redelineation must keep “the number of electors within each constituency in a State … to be approximately equal”. Therefore, the crucial question arises — does the 2016 redelineation review equalise or in fact increase variation to the sizes of constituencies? (Refer to Graph 3 and 4)

Within Selangor, the smallest and biggest constituencies are both respectively 60 per cent smaller and 50 per cent larger than the average constituency after redelineation.

By international standards, this is unthinkable. In the UK, for example, the electorate per constituency is restricted to “no less than 95 per cent” and “no more than 105 per cent” of the UK quota, defined as the average electorate size per constituency. Malaysia continues to flout such democratic norms. Ever since numerical limits on constituency variance were removed from the constitution in 1973, seats have grown and shrunk arbitrarily, flying in the face of the expectation for constituencies to be approximately equal.

Just how contrary Malaysia’s unfair constituency variations are to the spirit of the original Malaysian constitution becomes clear if we look back in time. Framers of the 1957 Independence Constitution regarded suffrage as the embodiment of the principle of “one person, one vote, one value”. Fluctuations between constituency sizes were permissible, but they were not to differ from the average “by more than 15 per cent”. Under these original Constitutional standards, this newest redelineation creates 13 out of 22 constituencies violating the nation’s supreme law.

Between 1962-1973, redelineation was given a wider berth. Constituency sizes could be 33.33 per cent above or below the average size. Even by this standard, the proposed redelineation would cause nine constituencies to be invalid, two more than if redelineation plans were forgone altogether. (Refer to Table 1)

Currently, the average constituency size of opposition-held seats is 106,392 while those in BN stand at 53,928. In other words, the average opposition parliamentarian represents twice as many registered voters as a BN parliamentarian in Selangor. The largest constituency, Petaling Jaya Utara will soon be four times more populous than the smallest, Sabak Bernam. The discrepancy between the value of an opposition ballot compared to a BN is a trend consistent across all Malaysian states with an opposition presence. (Refer to Graph 5)

In conducting its latest redelineation review, the EC has acted akin to the Executive arm of government, left unchecked. Firstly, it paid no heed to the 2012 report on electoral reform conducted by a bipartisan Parliamentary Select Committee, which implored that the EC review the Constitution to “give full meaning to the principle of ‘One Person, One Vote’”. It is clearly taking advantage of the absence of constitutional limits in interpreting constituency sizes for 106,392 voters to mean “approximately equal” to 53,928.

At the end of the day, Malaysia urgently needs proper delineation. Thirteen years have lapsed since the last one, and the Malaysian population has grown by 23.8 per cent since. However, there not only must  be a balance of electorate size across constituencies, but a responsible redelineation must also account for the maintenance of community ties to civil society and local authorities, geographical concerns and ensuring information symmetry with affected voters.

Update 28 November, 2016: Fortunately, on 28 November 2016, the Selangor government succeeded in obtaining a stay that would temporarily prevent the EC from continuing to hold inquiries in its redelineation exercise.

To view accompanying graphs further detailing the redelineation process click here.

Lim Li Ann is an economics and public policy graduate from Singapore Management University.

She is a co-author of the chapter on arbitrary detention in the book, “The History of Human Rights Society in Singapore, 1965-2015”.