After a week of pandemonium in Parliament, the proposed voting boundaries and renaming of seats in the peninsula have been given the royal assent. They are here to stay. Or at least until the next exercise in eight years’ time.
In Malaysia, the responsibility for proposing these changes falls to the Election Commission, which is under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Department. This relationship as well as how the recommendations are submitted – first to the prime minister for amendments before making its way to parliament – politicise the entire exercise.
In fact, since independence, the electoral system has relied on malapportionment to increase the weight of rural votes. This in turn created a structure which critics say has helped the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), to remain at the helm.
It’s not that BN went unchallenged. The previous two elections – 2008 and 2013 – saw the opposition mounting a competitive bid for national leadership. The then Pakatan Rakyat won the popular vote but failed to capture parliament.
Malapportionment was to blame
It is believed that roughly 17.25% of seats in the Dewan Rakyat are allocated to states beyond what would be an equitable share based on their number of voters.
The table below shows malapportionment at the state level using the latest redelineation report for peninsula states, and boundary recommendations for Sabah and Sarawak.
The first column displays the percentage of the 222 seats in the dewan, allocated to each state. The second column, the percentage of registered voters found in each state, and the third column, the degree of over- or under-representation in terms of seats.
For example, Pahang has 14 allocated seats, which translates to roughly about 6.3% of the total number of seats in the Dewan Rakyat. It makes up 5.5% of Malaysia’s registered voters, but it has roughly two seats more. Johor, on the other hand, has a much larger voting pool, about 12.2%, and yet it is underrepresented with exactly one parliamentary seat less.
The table provides three insights. First, East Malaysia – Sabah and Sarawak – are highly over-represented at the expense of the peninsula. Technically, 22 seats need to be phased out and added into the peninsula for seat allocations to be properly apportioned based on the number of voter this coming election.
Second, even within the peninsula there is a high variation in apportionment with Selangor being severely under-represented. Selangor is the country’s wealthiest state and also largely urbanised.
Third, there’s a strong political component in terms of seat allocation. Over-represented states were places where Barisan did well during GE13. In Sabah and Sarawak, the coalition won 64% and 62.7% of the votes, respectively. It also did well in Perlis and Pahang with 55.7% and 55.6%, respectively.
BN’s dominance of smaller districts
To better appreciate this, let’s start with data from GE13 and map out all 222 seats in the dewan according to number of voters.
Note the size disparity between both extremes. The smallest district, Putrajaya, had 15,791 voters and the largest district, Kapar, had 144,519 voters. Both are located in Selangor or the Klang Valley, with Putrajaya being gazetted a federal territory.
What’s consequential is the large difference in size between Barisan-held and opposition-held districts: the former fared significantly better in smaller districts than its opponent. In real terms, BN won all of the 37 smallest districts and won 83 of the 86 smaller districts.
The middle of the districts is mixed ground with roughly equal proportion of BN and opposition districts, while the largest of the spectrum is composed primarily of opposition districts.
Does this pattern replicate itself with the latest figures?
This time the districts are labelled according to the incumbent as elections are not yet held. There are certainly some nuances here.
For instance, there are roughly 122 seats below the average district size of 61,000 voters. Only 15 of those are held by the opposition, meaning if BN held on to the remainder 105 small seats and win seven more from denser districts, a simple majority can be realised.
Also now the largest seat is Damansara (formerly Petaling Jaya Utara) with 150,439 voters, which was more than what then largest seat Kapar had in the previous election.
Why bother about malapportionment?
Besides being the reserve of urban voters, there are some practical consequences. For starters, the influence of voters in smaller seats mean BN does not need to reach beyond a relatively narrow segment of society to maintain a simple majority.
This disincentivises the government to pursue reconciliation with broad segments of a multiracial population, especially if those efforts risk alienating key voting blocs. The election commission itself admitted its redelineation proposal were drawn along racial lines, saying it believed ethnic groups should be kept together, confirming the analyses of opposition politicians such as Ong Kian Ming of the DAP.
Even intra-coalition politics will be affected. For instance, the past few weeks saw Barisan-component party MCA being criticised by Umno deputy president Zahid Hamid for its lacklustre effort.
What stood out in that video was his faux Chinese accent and a veiled threat, telling voters he and others knew who “cheated” in the elections by not voting BN.
A more concerning scenario will be if the level of malapportionment renders a Pakatan victory impossible, then political stakes on both sides of the divide amplify substantially.
For Pakatan, disenfranchisement would incentivise the coalition to see extra-institutional channels, such joining Bersih rallies or using civil society organisations to push their propaganda across various media. This is already happening.
For Barisan, if political survival can be assured solely by securing the support of a narrow voting bloc, that support may be pursued at all costs, even if they include strategically deepening societal divisions. This, too, is already materialising, such as the introduction of the Bumiputera Empowerment Agenda, which kicked in right after BN failed to secure its two thirds majority in GE13. Critics have panned the move as a reversal of the more inclusive 1Malaysia policy.
In short, even if Prime Minister Najib Razak or his successor’s reform agenda is genuine, the incentives to implement broadly inclusive policies dissipate as the system concentrates influences in a people group from a narrow demographic.
But winning an election takes more than adjusting boundaries
That’s what the two charts do not account for. It only provides the structural advantages that made and continue to make a BN victory sustainable.
There are few other factors that determine winning an election such as multi-cornered fights as the Malay vote is sliced further with the introduction of Amanah and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, both seen as an alternative to PAS and Umno, respectively.
But nothing is more disconcerting than, well, voter turnout. One of the strategies to beat malapportionment – aside from an independent election commission – is to win an extremely high number of the popular vote.
Opposition parties and civil society groups know this. That’s why they have been urging Malaysians to come out and vote, because a higher turnout would shift the balance of powers for the first time in history. The question is, has the opposition done enough to convince many to show up and vote for it?
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