Gerrymandering, An Insidious Tool To Win Elections

Posted on December 28, 2015



There have been many allegations that electoral boundaries in Malaysia are drawn to favour the incumbent and it is probably the single biggest factor that can determine the outcome even before an election is called.

Since the last re-delineation in 2003 for the Peninsula and Sabah and 2005 for Sarawak, the country has seen three General Elections with the last two registering extremely high on the political Richter scale.

The time for a re-delineation is long overdue and it is an exercise that is needed not just to adjust for population growth and movement over the last 12 years but also to adjust for the changed political landscape and voting patterns. The latter reason is called manipulation. For Barisan Nasional (BN), it is a do-or-die re-delineation exercise.

There are two main types of electoral boundary manipulations: gerrymandering and malapportionment. One manipulates the composition of electorates while the other manipulates the size of a constituency. Both have the same objective of drawing the boundaries in such a way that it favours a particular party or class of people.

The result of the 13th General Election attest to the deciding role of gerrymandering and malapportionment. Pakatan Rakyat (PR) who won 50.87 percent of votes casted received only 40 percent of seats in Parliament while Barisan Nasional who obtained only 47.38 percent of the votes won 59.9 percent of the seats.

Based on’s categorisation of urban, semi-urban and rural constituencies, the vast majority, 81.2 percent of the seats won by BN were rural while it only won 5 of the 43 urban seats. PR won 34 of the 54 semi-urban seats while BN won 20. The voting divide at the 13th General Election is clear, it is an urban-rural divide.

The real battleground are the 54 semi-urban seats and around 30 rural seats where the margin of victory was less than 5 percent. If you consider that PR was just 24 seats short of forming a new Government with a simple majority of 112 seats, you would have realised that they came pretty close. In fact, just a 5 percent swing towards the opposition in any of the 50 BN semi-urban and rural seats, would have seen Malaysian waking up to a new Government on the 6th of May, 2013.

Coupled with the changed political landscape where the popularity of Prime Minister Dato Seri Najib Razak is at an all-time low amidst the 1MDB scandal, GST, depreciation of the Ringgit and an uncertain global economic future, the chance of a decisive change in Government is not unrealistic. That is, if there is no re-delineation of electoral boundaries.

If I were Najib Razak, top on my list of priorities would be to re-delineate electoral boundaries to ensure that BN would not lose power. The target for this exercise would be the 80 plus semi-urban and marginal rural seats and the criteria would be more Malay-majority seats rather than mixed-ethnicity seats.

Going by how the Election Commission (EC) did the Sarawak re-delineation exercise this year, we can expect the following.

  1. There will be no new Parliamentary seats.
  2. Substantial increase in State constituencies.
  3. Most of the new state seats will be created out of smaller constituencies.
  4. Large urban seats remains approximately the same.
  5. Most of the new seats will favour the ruling coalition.
  6. The Notice given to affected voters will have bare minimum information.
  7. The whole process will be expeditiously carried out.

Though there will likely to be no new Parliamentary seats proposed due to the fact that BN does not have two-third majority in Parliament, the increase in State seats would affect the boundaries of Parliament seats and make it easier to gerrymander using these state seats.

Does affected voters have a say in the whole re-delineation process? Yes. The 13th Schedule of the Federal Constitution in Section 5 allows State governments, local authorities and groups of 100 or more affected voters in a constituency 30 days to object to the proposals by the Election Commission (EC).

They have two opportunities to object during the process and two rounds of inquiry to attend if the grounds of their objections are valid.

Over and above the two objection opportunities provided by the Federal Constitution, anyone affected or dissatisfied with the conduct of the process can also take up legal actions to challenge the EC.

This was done during the Sarawak delineation when a judicial review was taken regarding the adequacy of the Notice given. The case went all the way to the Federal court and delayed the Sarawak exercise considerably.

Though pessimism is understandable in successfully challenging the delineation process, we must play our Constitutional role of scrutinizing the proposed boundaries by EC and submit the best objections possible. It should not be a walkover.

Gerrymandering and malapportionment are the most insidious weapon one could use to win elections because they betray the trust of the voters and make a mockery of the principle of one-person, one-vote and one-value in a democracy. It is better to fail resisting than fail to resist it.

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