Malaysia's parliament swiftly approved a new electoral map Wednesday amid howls of protest from opposition lawmakers and activists who said it favored Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition in upcoming polls.
In total, 129 lawmakers voted for and 80 voted against a bill allowing for the redrawing of electoral boundaries that was bulldozed through parliament and expected to take effect just in time for the 14th General Election, which must be called by August.
Malaysia’s king must still approve the motion, after which Najib is expected to seek his permission to dissolve parliament and announce a date for the election.
Prominent electoral reform activist S. Ambiga described the move as “cheating the people and an act of challenging democracy.”
“We cannot allow that. Why they are rushing the report through,” she told reporters during a protest outside parliament, referring to a document detailing the changes to the electoral map that was produced by the nation’s Election Commission (EC) and submitted to the legislature.
Lawmakers held a chaotic debate on the measure in parliament late Wednesday in front of Speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia, who abruptly suspended senior opposition leader Lim Kit Siang for six months for speaking out of turn.
In introducing the bill, Prime Minister Najib Razak told the House that the redistricting would not produce any new seats but would change the boundaries and names of some existing districts.
He said redistricting was needed because the electoral map had last been drawn up in 2003, and due to “the different topography and demography of rural areas.”
“This had indirectly posed restrictions in terms of connectivity and transportation,” Najib said.
“This problem had caused far higher concentration of population in the urban areas compared to the rural.”
Most supporters of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition are in rural areas, especially villages built for low-income Malays as part of a decades-old development scheme targeting Malaysia’s ethnic majority.
“The government did not interfere nor had any influence [on the] EC in executing their duties. The government … respects all decisions made by the commission, for the benefit of all and for the interest of the rakyat [the people] and our country,” Najib said.
The new electoral map appears to pack more voters into districts currently held by the opposition.
For example, it renames the Petaling Jaya Utara seat in opposition-held Selangor state and enlarges it from 84,456 to 150,439 voters, making it the largest constituency in Peninsular Malaysia.
Meanwhile, the Kuala Lumpur Lembah Pantai seat, held by the daughter of jailed de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, now includes the federal police headquarters Bukit Aman, adding at least additional 6,000 votes, although the two areas are not geographically adjacent.
Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah, won the seat in 2013 by 1,847 votes, ousting a former government minister in a shock upset.
Other changes included renaming 12 parliamentary and 28 state seats.
Malays and other indigenous groups account for nearly 70 percent of Malaysia’s population of 31 million, with ethnic Chinese making up 23 percent and ethnic Indians and others the remainder.
Most of the Malaysian political parties are race-based, including Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the linchpin of the ruling BN coalition.
Earlier in the day, about 1, 000 people clad in yellow T-shirts of the electoral reform movement Bersih marched towards parliament, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He had abandoned the ruling party in 2016, saying it was shielding Najib from corruption allegations.
Mahathir said BN had “bulldozed” through the proposal without giving adequate space for it to be debated.
“The law needs more time to be debated. This law is only for the general election,” Mahathir said commenting on the half-day given to debate around the redrawing of electoral boundaries.
“This is a form of tyranny,” he added.
Mahathir has been named as the choice for prime minister by the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition should it expand its share of seats from 90 to a simple majority of 112 or more.
The suspended opposition leader Lim, a Batu Pahat parliamentarian and advisor of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), had questioned Pandikar’s decision to prevent the redistricting proposal from being made public when it was handed to parliamentarians last week.
In a press conference shortly after the bill was passed, Lim said the redistricting was aimed at protecting Najib and his ruling coalition.
“Today the parliament voted for a motion to protect Najib and BN, tomorrow it will vote to protect Najib from 1MDB with the fake news law. The choice is in the voter’s hand whether to allow for this to succeed,” he told reporters.
A bill introduced in parliament on Monday would make spreading fake news a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Najib could be facing his toughest electoral battle yet due to a massive corruption scandal involving a state-owned investment fund, 1MDB. The ruling BN coalition lost its super majority in 2008 and saw its majority further trimmed in 2013.
The 1MDB affair has spawned international investigations and most recently the seizure of a mega-yacht allegedly purchased with funds stolen from 1MDB by Malaysian tycoon Low Taek Jho, the main target of a U.S. government money-laundering investigation.
Najib has acknowledged receiving close to U.S. $681 million in his personal bank accounts just before the 2013 election, but said the money was a political donation from Saudi Arabia’s royal family. The prime minister and 1MDB officials have denied the embezzlement allegations.
The controversy over the 1MDB scandal has stoked negative opinion polls against Najib since 2015, but the opposition has struggled to make a serious dent in Najib’s rural support, according to analysts.
Mahathir’s new party, Bersatu, is focusing on gaining the votes of the ethnic Malay Muslim majority, its president, Muhyiddin Yassin, told BenarNews earlier this month.
“Our strategy is to pull the support from Malays who used to support BN and especially UMNO,” he said, noting that in 2013 the opposition won 52 percent of the popular vote but was still unable to form a government.
“I believe if there is a 5 percent move, to maybe 55 percent or 57 percent, which is highly likely to happen especially among the Malays, the win will be for Pakatan Harapan,” he said.
Earlier this month, Najib’s government began distributing about U.S. $1.6 billion to millions of low-income citizens as part of a government plan to spur economic growth, but critics slammed the move as vote-buying ahead of the general election.