Why voters are getting a raw deal

Most Malaysians do not consider the country's elections to be fair, according to the executive director of one of Malaysia's most prominent think tanks

March 5, 2018

Most Malaysians do not consider the country’s elections to be fair, according to the executive director of one of Malaysia’s most prominent think tanks

Malaysia’s embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak, Wallace Woon/EPA-EFE

Malaysia is preparing for a general election later this year against a backdrop of increasing disenchantment with senior politicians, some of whom will be the main contenders in the poll. Dr Ooi Kee Beng, the executive director of Malaysia’s Penang Institute think tank, offers his views on the situation.


In 2016, the government was criticised over plans to redraw electoral boundaries (gerrymandering) in a move that would put the opposition at a disadvantage…
The redrawing of electoral boundaries takes place every decade or so in Malaysia, and is nowadays seen as a scheduled opportunity for the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), to maximise its chances of winning upcoming elections. This is all the more the case this time when the general elections have to be called before August, and when BN is under strong pressure from [the] opposition.

What are the key campaign issues that both the governing coalition and the opposition coalition are bringing to the attention of voters?
The 1MDB corruption case involving Prime Minister Najib Razak and close friends of his family will be a central issue in the coming election, as will be [opposition leader] Mahathir Mohamad’s mixed record as prime minister between 1981 and 2003. The damage done to Malaysia’s general reputation in recent years by the bad publicity surrounding the 1MDB case and other scandals will also be brought up. The rising cost of living and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax will be used to rouse resentment against the government. This is especially likely since many poorer Malaysians have been feeling the pinch economically in recent years at the same time as the government has been claiming that the economy is doing fantastically well.

What are the chances of the opposition winning a majority in parliament in this year’s vote?
The chances of the opposition winning the popular vote are good. But winning a majority in parliament will depend greatly on the distribution of that support.

Gerrymandering has been blatant in recent times and, in the worst cases, a vote in an opposition-supporting constituency can be worth only a fraction of a vote cast in a pro-BN constituency.

There was a record voter turnout in the last election, but there were also allegations of various forms of fraud. Are Malaysians confident that the election will be free and fair?
Most Malaysians do not consider the country’s elections to be fair. They are free to an extent, but the gerrymandering, the malapportionment, the difficulties people face in registering to vote, the inability to vote by post and from outside the country all add to the sense that the dice are loaded. Many activists will be out to make the election as fair as possible, no doubt. But the presence of international observers should be encouraged. Asean countries should insist on sending observers to make sure that no switches of ballot boxes occur, especially in rural areas.

This article was published in the March edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.

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