How people elect parliaments
Malaysians will go to the polls on May 9 to try to elect a parliament, using what are probably the world’s most distorted electoral district boundaries.
Malaysia has been governed for its entire 61-year modern history by just one political party – a record for electoral democracies. The Barisan Nasional (National Front alliance, or BN), of which the core party is the UNMO, has a dubious reputation for election-winning institutional tactics, including packing dramatically different populations of voters into electoral district boundaries.
Malaysia has always elected its national parliament, the Dewan Rakyat, using the first-part-the-post system of single member districts and plurality voting.
For decades the country’s elections have be conducted with a system of rural malapportionment, where non-urban electoral districts with stronger ethnic Malay populations (generally more supportive of the UNMO party) have smaller registered populations, and thus more MPs per voter.
Small-population divisions are allowed for in Sabah and Sarawak, the two states located on Borneo island, where local political movements generally operate in alliance with the BN group framework.
But in recent elections the boundary-distortion situation have more directly related to partisan support geography within Peninsula Malaysia and the urban areas.
Whilst UNMO formerly enjoyed very high voter support, political opposition to BN in the electorate has grown steadily in the past few decades. In 2013 the opposition parties actually won 52% of the vote – yet took only 40% of the seats in the Dewan Rakyat.
Running on the 2003 boundaries in the 2013 election, it became clear that BN was assisted not merely by rural loading of seat numbers, but by concentration of opposition supporters in large numbers within the major urban centres.
The registration numbers in the Malaysian electoral districts are probably the most unequal of any parliamentary election in the world in recent years.
In 2008 the registration numbers had ranged from just 6,600 (in pro-BN capital district of Putrajeya) to 112,000. Just 4,038 voters won the Putrajaya seat for BN in that election, whereas opposition vote tallies up to 7 times that number were on the losing side in much larger districts.
At the 2013 election the registration numbers across the 222 districts ranged from 15,798 voters up to 144,000.
The smallest districts are most common in Sahah and Sarawak, with registrations ranging from around 20,00 to 50,000 voters. Almost all the seats in those states have previously been won by Barisan Nasional member parties. Meanwhile in Selangor state, many strong opposition-support seats have over 100,000 registered voters.
The very diverse 222 districts registration numbers show coefficients of variation – a common statistical measure of divergence within a list of numbers – of 42% in 2013.
This average degree of difference from the mean registration number is strikingly higher than any comparable electoral system. Recent equivalent numbers in other single-member district parliamentary elections include results of 11-12% for the UK House of Commons since 2010, 8-9% for the Australian House of Representatives since 2010, and 17% for the Canadian House of Commons (where provincial seat allocations are slightly distorted by constitutional rules) in 2015. All three of these nations have independent, non-partisan processes for electoral boundary-making.
Malaysia’s constitution requires remaking of the nation’a electoral boundaries every 8 years, but the previous redraw had been completed in 2003. The redistricting due in 2011 has finally come 7 years late, skipping the 2013 election, and was issued a few weeks ago.
If ever there was a case for a thorough and fair redistribution of electoral district boundaries being needed, it was during the just-ending parliamentary term in Malaysia.
The Malaysian Electoral Commission is charged with carrying out an non-partisan, rule-based review of the boundaries, but it actually operates under the supervision of the Prime Minister and his department.
Both deliberate malapportionment and partisan gerrymandering have been normal practices in Malaysia for many years, according to analyst Shrish Srivastava, (Malaysia’s Long History of Election Rigging, The Diplomat, 11 January 2018.)
From 1957 until 1962, the number of voters in each district had to be within 15% per cent of the nationwide average, an policy common in modern democracies. But after 1962 a rule allowing rural weightings was adopted. In modern times, there affectively are no standards other than the judgement of the boundary-setting officials as to whatever they think is reasonable.
The new, belated electoral district ‘redeliniation’ process has been a shocker. The initial draft boundaries released in 2016 so obviously adjusted the situation even more in BN’s favour that extensive public protests and a flood of court litigation followed. The government remained unmoved.
Finally, in the past few weeks, with the 5-year dissolution of parliament fast approaching, the Electoral Commission simply disregarded all the litigation and declared in favour of one of the worst versions that had been under consideration.
Incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak rapidly endorsed the package and sent it to the Dewen Rakyat, which promptly voted it into law on a party-line vote.
According to a recent summary of the situation in the Straits Times, the new boundaries would generate another 8-10 seat wins for Barisan on top of the 129 seats it disproportionately won in the last elections.
On May 9, a Malaysian voter in Putrajaya district will effectively cast a ballot worth 3.78 times an ‘average’ nationwide vote, while one in the district of Kepar in Selangor will cast a ballot worth just 0.41 votes.
The political demographics of the nation shows BN voters will overwhelmingly have the above-weight votes, while those supporting opposition parties will have the below-weight votes.
It has been estimated that the opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance would need to win at least 58% of the national vote to overcome the engineered malapportionment and win even a narrow majority of the Dewan Rakyat seats.
Not to be caught out by any change in the electorate’s mood, the governing BN has taken additional precautions with this election. Recently-enacted media laws impinge on freedom of speech in the election in relation to criticizing the government and the massive international corruption scandals that have dogged Razak personally. Raising the issue may expose opposition candidates and media to prosecution.
BN has also managed to divide the opposition. In 2013 the Pakatan Harapan opposition group of parties and the smaller Islamic PAS party cooperated in regard to many nominations, avoiding conflicts in the single member districts and together amassing 52% of the nationwide vote.
But BN has now leveraged PAS out of the opposition’s friendship, and a more free-standing third force, Gagasan Sejahtere, has formed around PAS and similar small parties.
Wherever third force parties now run against a Pakatan candidate, it will now split the opposition vote, allowing more BN candidates to win by pluralities.
BN, on the other hand, can reward PAS by withdrawing its candidates from a small number of strong PAS districts.
Finally – for some reason – the incumbent government has surprised everyone by declaring that the election will be held on a Wednesday, an almost unique election day by world customs. No doubt the tactical reasons for this odd arrangement will become clear by May 9.
Malaysia is also relatively unusual among democracies in that the voting age is 21 years. Around 14.9 million voters are currently registered.