MALAYSIA - A compulsory exercise to redraw the boundaries of Malaysia's electoral seats will begin soon, and is set to turn contentious as civil society sharpens its tools to demand reforms.
This exercise will not go unnoticed, as was the case in the past.
This is because opposition MPs now make up 40 per cent of the votes in Parliament, and effectively hold veto power as the government needs two-thirds of the votes to increase the number of seats by creating new constituencies.
The last such move was in 2003, when the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) had a two-thirds majority. Among the seats created then was Putrajaya, which covers the nation's administrative centre.
Groups such as electoral reforms advocate Bersih have already begun galvanising public support to pressure the Election Commission (EC) to address the sharp imbalances in the current system.
Anomalies include having 144,000 voters in the largest parliamentary seat (Kapar), while the smallest has only 15,700 (Putrajaya). Such imbalances have been blamed for Pakatan Rakyat's (PR) defeat in the election last year.
Although PR won 50.8 per cent of the valid votes cast, it took only 40 per cent of the seats. It triumphed mostly in urban areas, where constituencies are huge, while BN picked up most of the sparsely populated rural constituencies.
Opposition MP Ong Kian Ming's research shows Malaysia is among the countries with the most skewed electoral seats. "If Malaysia had complied with international standards, PR would have won the 2013 election," he said.
Clearly, the stakes are high. Expect fiery times ahead.
Acknowledging this, EC chairman Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof said people will have a chance to give feedback at public hearings on the changes. The EC will display the proposed electoral boundaries at more than 1,000 public places around the country by June this year before holding the hearings.
Tan Sri Abdul Aziz said the number of seats is likely to be increased from the current 222, but declined to say by how many. The EC will probably recommend splitting the 13 parliamentary seats that have more than 100,000 voters each. Also, seats currently governed as two administrative districts will be divided.
Several civil society groups have begun garnering public support ahead of the exercise.
Bersih is setting up a network to get voters to meet, as the law requires at least 100 voters to object to a seat before the EC will hold an inquiry.
Last weekend, another group, called Tindak Malaysia, or "Act Malaysia", organised a well-attended forum to educate the public about the redelineation exercise. It is working with Malaysia's Bar Council, as well as Projek Beres, which stands for Blueprint for Effective Reform of the Electoral System, a group focused on long-term electoral reforms.
Projek Beres spokesman Syahredzan Johan, a lawyer, said there are plans for a roadshow over the next few months. "We are not partisan. What we want is to engage the stakeholders over how the electoral system can be improved," he said.
Given the flurry of activity over the exercise, Dr Ong said the EC would have a far tougher time than in the last exercise, back in 2003.
"It will be conducting the exercise under a lot more public scrutiny, and it will have to take into account all the demands. It will have to be seen as responding to public concerns," he said.
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