KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s opposition parties have never come close to winning a majority of seats in a national election, even in 2013 when their total vote exceeded the ruling coalition. That year, the ruling National Front won 47 percent of votes but 60 percent of the seats in Parliament. The party has advantages in this election too. Opposition parties and activists have long complained they’re unable to compete on equal terms. Here are some reasons why:
Rural Seats Are Key
Not every vote is equal. Multi-ethnic urban seats, which lean toward the opposition, generally have much higher numbers of voters than those dominated by rural majority Malays, who traditionally support the National Front. That means it takes fewer votes to elect a government lawmaker than it does to elect an opposition lawmaker. Tindak, a group lobbying for reform of the electoral system, says one third of voters decide half of the seats. These distortions are particularly evident in the thinly populated states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo, which together elect a quarter of seats in Parliament.
Questionable Boundary Changes
The opposition and election monitoring groups say changes to the boundaries of electorates that were rushed through Parliament last month favor the government. They say the redrawn boundaries moved likely opposition voters into seats that already support the opposition, a process that also split constituencies along racial lines because minority Chinese and Indian voters have flocked to the opposition in the past two elections. The Election Commission has insisted the process was fair and the transfers moved voters to closer poll centers. The boundaries have not been redrawn since 2003, but this was the first time the exercise didn’t involve an increase in parliamentary seats despite a sharp rise in voters. Tindak said the most obviously unfair changes were in the country’s richest state of Selangor, which is among three of 13 states not ruled by the National Front.
Vote Roll Irregularities
Bersih, a group promoting free and fair elections, says it has found “major irregularities” in the electoral roll, including more than 2.1 million people — equal to about 15 percent of eligible voters — without addresses. It also identified 23 cases of dead Malaysians being re-registered as new voters. The group says the irregularities are nothing new but no action to clean up the lists was taken following recommendations by a parliamentary committee in 2011. “We are extremely concerned that these irregularities continue to persist,” Bersih said.
How Credible Are International Observers
Malaysia has invited 25 election observers from nine countries including India and Indonesia, the world’s biggest and third-biggest democracies, respectively. But the seven other nations all fall short on democratic credentials: Azerbaijan, the Maldives, Thailand, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Cambodia and Krygyzstan. Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission protested that it had been denied permission by the Election Commission to field observers at polling stations. The commission said there will be more than 1,200 observers representing 14 local civil society groups.
Fake News Law
Malaysia’s Parliament last month passed a law prohibiting fake news that critics said could be used to stifle debate and inhibit reporting on a corruption scandal at state investment fund 1MDB and allegations USD$700 million of the stolen money landed in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s bank account. Last week police said they were investigating a fake news complaint against opposition leader and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. He had claimed his chartered plane was sabotaged last week to prevent him from filing his candidacy in the northern resort island of Langkawi. The law allows fines of up to 500,000 ringgit ($127,000) and six years in prison.
The Election Commission’s decision to hold the election in the middle of the working week triggered a flurry of complaints it would suppress turnout, because many people must return to their hometowns to vote. Past elections show a higher turnout increases the opposition’s share of the vote. The government subsequently declared May 9 a holiday but its opponents said it would still be challenge for half a million Malaysians working in Singapore to return home to vote.