The facade of Malaysian democracy

Photo: Firdaus Latif/CC BY 2.0
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A biased election coalition allows the incumbent party to carve up election constituencies as it pleases. This has led to a breakdown in Malaysian democracy.

By Oliver Ward

The stage is set for the Malaysian public to choose who will lead their country. Prime Minister Najib Razak has until August to call a general election. The opposition alliance now has a candidate. Mahathir Mohamed will stand as the alternative to Najib. It sounds simple, if the public wants Najib, it will vote him back in. But there will be more forces at play than the will of the Malaysian people.

Malaysia’s dark history of election rigging

Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition won its 13th election in 2013. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has always had a majority in parliament. It used this to manipulate every general election since Malaysia’s independence.

The easiest way for UMNO to gain the upper hand was through gerrymandering. To create a new voter district, two-thirds of parliament must approve. UMNO has always controlled parliament. The party redrew election boundaries before each election.  The boundaries ensured UMNO won the maximum number of districts. This is reflected in the number of districts. In 1963 there were 104 districts in Malaysia. In 2013, there were 222.

How BN swept to victory in 2013

The 2013 general election was riddled with BN’s election rigging methods. BN received 4% less of the popular vote than the opposition. Yet they took 20% more parliamentary seats. Much of this was due to the favourable district boundaries. However, other tactics were also adopted.

Independent election observers noticed irregularities in the indelible ink. The Malaysian authorities use indelible ink to prevent multiple voting. The ink stains the voter’s finger for five to seven days. Anyone with the ink on their index finger cannot vote again. At some voting stations in Kuala Lumpur, voters noticed they could wash the ink off with soap. More than 50,000 military servicemen and women could have voted twice. They could have voted early on April 30th, then again at a polling station on May 5th.

UMNO also used foreign voters to influence the election. The Prime Minister’s office arranged for dozens of flights to bring voters to the Malaysian Peninsula. The voters came from Borneo.  Thousends of Bengali workers work on palm oil plantations there.

Eyewitnesses at polling stations reported many voters who did not look like Malaysians. When voters confronted them, they could not sing the national anthem. They could not accurately give their residential address on their polling card.

A weak Election Commission means BN could do the same thing in 2018

The Election Commission (EC) is responsible for protecting the national elections democratic integrity. However, it has hindered democracy in Malaysia rather than facilitated it. The Head of State is responsible for appointing civil servants to the body. This inherently makes it a biased regulatory body. The same EC will be responsible for maintaining a fair 2018 election. A free and fair elections could still be out of reach in Malaysia.

BN has already begun gerrymandering

BN is already taking measures to preserve its electoral advantage. There have already been proposals to expand non-Malay opposition constituencies.

Source: Malaysiakini

BN wants to create 13 “super constituencies” with more than 100,000 voters in each. It also wants to create one mega-constituency with more than 150,000 voters. If the plan goes ahead, a voter in BN held Putrajaya district will carry the weight of eight voters in opposition-held Damansara.

This will undoubtedly sway the election. An independent survey predicted that BN would lose more of the popular vote in 2018 than it did in 2013. But the survey predicted BN would maintain a two-third parliamentary majority. Just enough to ensure it will be able to draw up the 2023 election constituencies.

Regardless of who wins, elections in Malaysia will remain one-sided

There is no indication Mahathir would clean up the election process. During his 22-year tenure as Prime Minister, he did everything he could to cling onto power. In 1990, Mahathir dissolved parliament early. He was facing fierce competition from his political opponents. He shortened the time for campaigning before the election. This damaged his opponent, Tengku Razaleigh. Mahathir’s BN coalition won the 1990 election with 53.4% of the popular vote. It took 127 of the 180 parliamentary seats on offer.

The new super constituencies will make unseating Najib a Herculean effort. In an ideal world, the winning candidate would reform the EC.

The first step is to create an independent body for the appointment of civil servants into the EC. The EC must function as a fully independent body. Without it, Malaysia is doomed to repeat its dirty habit of election rigging. The quality of Malaysian elections leaves much to be desired. Malaysia does not need a change of government. It needs to change the political system. It needs to embrace democracy.