“IF AN election is voters choosing politicians, gerrymandering is politicians choosing voters,” explains Wong Chin Huat of the Penang Institute, a Malaysian think-tank, to a small group of concerned citizens. They are gathered in a windowless meeting room in Kuala Lumpur’s decrepit centre to bemoan the Election Commission’s (EC) redrawing of constituency boundaries. The new maps, Mr Wong explains, will help the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, maintain its stranglehold on power after 44 years in office.
An election must be held by August. The last parliamentary session before the vote ends on April 5th. Before they adjourn, lawmakers are expected to vote on the new boundaries for their seats, which are filled on a first-past-the-post basis.
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Malapportionment—the creation of seats of wildly unequal size—worries critics most. This involves packing urban and minority voters, who tend to support the opposition, into highly populated constituencies, while the largely rural and Malay backers of the Barisan Nasional occupy depopulated provincial seats. As a result, it takes more votes to get an opposition MP elected than it does to elect one from the ruling party. At the most recent election, in 2013, the Barisan Nasional won 60% of seats despite receiving a minority of votes, thanks mainly to this ploy.
Rather than making constituencies more balanced, the EC is making them even less so. In peninsular Malaysia there will be 15 parliamentary seats each containing more than 100,000 voters, according to Tindak Malaysia, an organisation that supports electoral reform. Fourteen of them are represented by members of opposition parties. All but one of 30 of the smallest constituencies, the tiniest of which has fewer than 18,000 voters, support Barisan Nasional (see chart).
The constitution says that constituencies should be “approximately equal” in size. It originally stipulated that, within each of Malaysia’s states, they should not vary in size by more than 15%. Later this was amended to 33%. In 1973 the rule was abolished altogether. Since then malapportionment has been rife, but the latest electoral maps are particularly bad, says Maria Chin Abdullah, until recently the head of Bersih, an alliance of groups which campaigns for fair elections.
Gerrymandering adds to the problem. This involves redrawing constituency boundaries to pack opposition voters into a few seats, while ruling-party supporters form a narrow majority in a larger number. The EC at first produced maps for state assemblies that appeared to sort voters into ethnic ghettoes. The revised versions, although less racially divisive, remain partisan. One example is the suggestion that the seat of Beruas in Perak state, which went to the opposition at the last election, should absorb an opposition stronghold from an adjoining constituency. Concentrating opposition supporters in the one seat should more than double the incumbent’s winning majority, but makes it harder for the BN’s critics to compete next door.
The proposals have prompted lots of objections and several court cases, especially in swing states such as Johor and Perak. “The Election Commission has totally ignored us. They don’t want to see us,” says Ms Chin Abdullah, who has left Bersih to stand in the impending election as an independent. Judges, likewise, have refused to interfere, saying the constitution gives parliament the right to redraw the maps. One appeal is pending in Selangor, a state run by the opposition, but even the activists involved express little hope for their cause.
There are other concerns. The rolls seem to include voters living in unlikely places, like the middle of a palm-oil plantation or the toilet block of a factory. In Selangor alone, the EC does not seem to have addresses for 36,000 registered voters. Postal voting may also be a problem. The government allows certain categories of public employees to vote by post in case they cannot get to the polls on election day. They include police officers and soldiers. But Ambiga Sreenevasan, a lawyer and activist, points out that there is little oversight of the storage and counting of such votes. Nonetheless, the EC quietly added nine new categories of postal voters last year, including workers unlikely to be on the front lines of an emergency on election day, such as the staff of the Immigration Department. And then there is the indelible ink, designed to stain voters’ fingers for a week to identify those who have already cast their ballots. A government minister admitted after the last election that the ink was too easily washed off.
Mr Najib, meanwhile, has been showering voters with handouts. Some 7m poorer Malaysians will receive three payments of up to 1,200 ringgit ($308) in total over the course of the year. Civil servants also received a special bonus in January and can expect another in June. But the government’s zeal to diminish voters’ say in the election suggests it does not have total faith in its ability to win them over.