Malaysian bid to redraw electoral map sparks anger

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Protestors stand during a rally organised by Bersih calling to stop a bill to redraw electoral boundaries near the Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur on March 28, 2018. The Malaysian government on March 28 proposed redrawing constituency boundaries as polls loom, a move that sparked angry demonstrations and claims from the opposition of a “scandalous” attempt to steal the election. / AFP PHOTO / Mohd RASFAN

The Malaysian government sought Wednesday to redraw the electoral map in what critics slammed as a bid to rig forthcoming polls, sparking drama in parliament as an opposition leader was ejected while angry protests raged outside.

The election is expected within weeks and Prime Minister Najib Razak is battling to keep his long-ruling coalition in power despite allegations that billions of dollars were looted from a sovereign wealth fund founded by him.

He is also facing a tough challenge from an opposition headed by veteran ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, 92, who is seeking to win over the government’s traditional support base of rural Muslim voters.

Najib on Wednesday tabled a bill in parliament to redraw electoral boundaries, with changes proposed to almost two-thirds of seats in Peninsular Malaysia.

The opposition claims the government is overhauling seats along racial lines, lumping their supporters together in bigger constituencies and creating smaller ones packed with voters from the Muslim Malay majority, who traditionally support the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

The bill is expected to pass easily in the BN-dominated parliament.

The coalition, which has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957, is under pressure to do better in the forthcoming polls after losing the popular vote for the first time in 2013, and as discontent grows at graft scandals, race-based politics in the multi-ethnic country and rising living costs.

But the bid to overhaul the electoral map has been slammed as a blatant attempt by a desperate leader to cling to power despite the controversy over state fund 1MDB, and protesters marched on parliament as the bill was presented.

About 200 demonstrators waved banners that read “stealing an election is not winning an election”, and were joined at one point by Mahathir, who led Malaysia for 22 years.

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, deputy leader of the opposition coalition Pact of Hope and wife of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, told AFP that the bid to redraw electoral boundaries was “scandalous”.

“It amounts to vote rigging because the new electoral boundaries will result in the election favouring Barisan Nasional,” she said. “We believe an election victory may be stolen from us.”

Ejected from parliament
There were dramatic scenes in parliament as MPs traded verbal blows before the bill was presented, with veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang demanding to know why the report on the proposed changes had been embargoed.

The Election Commission’s report setting out the overhaul was handed to all MPs last week but the government imposed a rare embargo until the bill was tabled, stopping them from publicly discussing its contents.

The speaker suspended parliament and ordered Lim to leave the chamber after he refused to sit down.

Tabling the bill, Najib defended the proposed changes: “The division of voters equally for all the constituencies… is difficult because there are rural areas whose topography and demography varies from one another”.

Gerrymandering is nothing new in Malaysia and has been used for decades by leaders of ruling coalitions, including Mahathir, to hang on to power.

At the 2013 election, BN won most parliament seats but lost the popular vote to the opposition by four percentage points.

Despite the controversy over 1MDB, Najib is tipped to win at the forthcoming elections — which must be called by August at the latest — due to alleged vote-rigging and BN’s tight grip on the country’s institutions.

The US Justice Department has alleged in civil lawsuits that $4.5 billion was looted from 1MDB in an audacious campaign of fraud and money-laundering, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions has labelled “kleptocracy at its worst”.