by Thomas Fan, Bersih 2.0 vice-chair for Southern Peninsula and chairman of Engage
The Election Commission (EC) will be conducting its sixth redelineation exercise of electoral boundaries soon and there can be little dispute that this would be the mother-of-all re-delineation exercises in Malaysia.
The survival of the ruling coalition depends on it and whether the opposition will finally become the government of the day depends on how our electoral boundaries are redrawn.
More important than whether Barisan Nasional (BN) or Pakatan Rakyat (PR) will rule is whether the will of the majority Malaysian will be respected and honoured. This can only come about with free and fair elections.
The goal of delineation
So, what is constituency delineation or delimitation? It is the process whereby our electoral boundaries, both parliamentary and state assemblies, are redrawn according to the guidelines in the 13th Schedule, Part 1, Section 2 of the Federal Constitution (FC).
This exercise must take place after every eight years and it is a normal and necessary exercise in any democracy. The reason is because over the course of time, population (voters) number changes because of developments, intra-migration and natural growth.
For example, rural areas become semi-urban or rural voters relocate to urban centres. The last redelineation was in 2003, except for Sarawak, which was in 2005. The objective of a redelineation exercise is to achieve what the Constitution stated, in the 13th Schedule, Part 1, 2(c)…
“…the number of electors within each constituency in a State ought to be approximately equal except that, having regard to the greater difficulty of reaching electors in the country districts and the other disadvantages facing rural constituencies, a measure of weightage for area ought to be given to such constituencies.”
The guiding principle in such exercises should be one person, one vote, one value (OPOVOV).
The considerations of delineation
Apart from ensuring that each constituency “ought to be approximately equal” with exceptions, the EC has to also abide by another important requirement in the 13th Schedule. Part 1, Section 2(d)…
“…regard ought to be had to the inconveniences attendant on alterations of constituencies, and to the maintenance of local ties.”
What this mean is that the goal of achieving equal apportionment must be balanced with the need to ensure that communities are not split and that as far as possible these communities who shares common interests are kept intact.
Representative democracy is about having lawmakers representing different interests of the nation/state to deliberate on laws and policies. Thus, it would only be natural that each constituency should be adequately homogenous with similar interests.
There are several factors which could be considered as determinants of local ties.
Administrative boundaries: local government plays an important role in our daily lives.
These local authorities set the assessment tax, local by-laws, grant licences and permits, provide basic amenities, rubbish collection as well as planning and overseeing developments.
The quality of our life, for better or worse, can be determined by such local authorities and as such we have a lot in common when we share the same local authorities.
The boundaries of local authorities in urban centres would be municipality council while in rural areas it would usually follow the district boundaries.
Historically, the Election Commission adheres to these boundaries and the electoral boundaries mirrors the local authority boundaries in many areas but there are also many places, especially urban centres, where such considerations are overlooked.
Socio-economic factors: bearing in mind that one of the goals of redelineation is to ensure that voters are appropriately represented and their elected representative would lend voice to their unique interests, the socio-economic status of the majority of voters in a constituency has to be a factor.
Socio-economic indicators are things like income, education, occupation and types of housing. If several groups that are significantly different in terms of socio-economic status are placed together in the same constituency, an elected representative may have the dilemma of which communities’ interest should he/she speak up for, especially when the interests are in conflict.
Natural or geographical boundaries: natural boundaries created by rivers, seas, mountains, swamps and lakes usually do divide communities through the ages. Electoral boundaries should take heed of these as such factors do create accessibility issues and in the past, communication issues.
Man-made boundaries: with development, mankind has increasingly stamped his mark on the landscape of the country. Artificial boundaries like highways, roads, canals, high-tension cables, railway tracks and large tracks of restricted areas are being created that would separate different communities.
When delineation goes wrong
When a redelineation exercise is conducted professionally and independently, voters in a constituency would be able to choose the candidate whom they think can best represent their common interests and that the coalition chosen by the majority of voters in the country would have the opportunity to form the next government.
Conversely, a partisan and unprofessional redelineation would produce a result that is skewed in favour of a certain political coalition.
In the last 13th general election, for the first time in our nation’s history, the coalition which achieved the majority of the popular vote, 51%, did not form the next government, not even close.
The 51% vote obtained translated to only 40% of parliamentary seats while the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, with only 46.5% of the popular votes still managed to win almost 60% of the seats up for grabs.
There are various methods of calculating how many percentage point the opposition must secure in GE13 to win a simple majority of two seats. The more conservative approach predicted that they would have needed 58% of the popular votes.
There are two main reasons for such vote-seat disproportionality – malapportionment and gerrymandering.
Value of a vote
Malapportionment is when the number of voters apportioned to constituencies varies widely from the constitutional dictate of “approximately equal”.
Even though the 13th Schedule allowed for exceptions, it should not become the norm and the difference cannot be up to nine times as in the case of P125 Putrajaya (15,791 voters) and P109 Kapar (144,159 voters).
Granted that this is not the fault of the EC since the number of parliamentary seats in a state is determined by Article 46 of the Constitution and it would be unfair to compare the average for each state let alone against a Federal Territory like Putrajaya.
But what about intra-state or within the same state malapportionment? In Sarawak, P207 Igan (17,771 voters) and P196 Stampin (84,732 voters) – 4.8 times. In Selangor, we have P109 Kapar (144,159 voters) and P92 Sabak Bernam (37,318 voters), 3.9 times.
What all these mean is that the value of a vote in Kapar is much less than that of a vote in Sabak Bernam or Putrajaya. This cannot be the intent of the authors of the Federal Constitution.
The intent was that each voter and vote should have approximately the same value and this is consistent with Article 21(3) of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights where it is stated…
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
The root of this problem was when limits set by the original authors of the Federal Constitution were amended from a variance of +/-15% to +/-33% and eventually totally removed in 1973 by Parliament.
Without a cap on how wide differences between constituency sizes are allowable, we now have this out-of-control malapportionment.
It is my view that silence on the limits is not a licence to ignore the spirit of Clause 2(c) of the 13th Schedule that it should be “approximately equal”.
Don’t break us up
The second reason there is a huge disproportion between seats won and votes obtained by political coalitions in Malaysia is the problem of gerrymandering.
According to Wikipedia, gerrymandering “is a practice that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries to create partisan advantaged districts.”
Based on the last voting patterns of the last election, a partisan boundary or election commission can draw boundaries in such a way that at the next election, assuming that the voters still voted pretty much the same way, the result would favour a particular party or coalition.
One of the tell-tale signs of a gerrymandered constituency is when its shape looks odd with unnatural contusions and indentations. One just have to look at P158 Tebrau, P123 Cheras, P119 Titiwangsa, P9 Alor Setar, P47 Nibong Tebal and P173 Putatan, just to name a few, to see some of the “monsters” created by an overzealous EC.
There are two approaches to gerrymandering a constituency. One is called “packing”, where oppositions voters by polling districts are packed together into one constituency, usually in a super-sized seat in urban centres.
The other method is called “cracking” where opposition votes are split and assimilated into constituencies where the ruling coalition has strong support.
Apart from swaying votes to the ruling coalition, another big problem is that it usually results in breaking up local ties. Section 2(d) of the 13th Schedule is clear about this.
While some may argue about what constitute “local ties”, surely there can be no justification when villages and housing estates are divided by state and even parliamentary boundaries.
We have an example in Johor Baru, where two polling districts, Sri Amar (1,814 voters) and Belantik (2,503 voters), were in this case taken out of the parliamentary seat of Johor Baru in the last delineation exercise in 2003 and placed into P159 Pasir Gudang and the state seat of N42 Johor Jaya.
The problem here is that Sri Amar and Belantik are part of a community, Kg Melayu Majidee and there is a major river, Sg Pandan and the North-South Expressway separating it from its new fellow voters in Johor Jaya. What spurred such delineation decision?
Could it be that both these two polling districts are solid backers of the ruling coalition and that Johor Baru itself is a safe seat while Johor Jaya is a not-so-safe seat?
We see many constituencies where boundaries are drawn in such a way that urban communities are lumped together with rural communities where they have very little interests in common, where local authority, natural and artificial boundaries are ignored.
Another consequence of delineation which is insensitive to maintenance of local ties is the quality of representation.
The elected representative who should voice out for those in his constituency has to decide who he represents. The rich business class, the middle income earners or the low-income earners in the rural fringe of his constituency? Does it matter or does anyone really care?
Beam me up, Scotty!
There is potentially another more insidious form of electoral manipulation. According to Article 119(1)(b) of the FC, we are supposed to vote in the constituency where we reside but there are evidence that voters were transferred to vote in other constituencies than the one they are residing in.
One notable testimony was given at The People’s Tribunal on GE13. G.S. Ong submitted evidence that a significant number of the 3,008 voters in his village, Kampung Abdullah in Segamat, were transferred out of the constituency where they reside, P140 Segamat, to vote in the newly created constituency of P141 Sekijang after the 2003 delineation.
There were no consistent pattern in who was transferred, and in some cases, even husband and wife were separated! The seat was won by BN with a slim majority.
We don’t know how widespread or the number of those unconstitutionally transferred but as we travelled the length and breadth of this country conducting talks on delineation, invariably when we come to this topic, there would be members of the audience who would indicate that they or they know of people who have been similarly transferred.
We call this form of electoral manipulation – teleportation, a concept illustrated in the popular sci-fi series Star Trek. Beam me up, Scotty!
Pawns in the hands of the powers that be
To the average voter who dutifully goes to the polls to cast his one vote, believing that his vote matters, that his vote could make a difference in this nation and that it could determine the kind of future for his children, he would be sorely disappointed if he were to discover that his vote has been manipulated and neutralised.
The level of electoral knowledge for the average voter is often limited to the name or emblem of the party of his choice and the polling station or school where he needs to cast his vote.
But unbeknown to him, the value of his vote has already been predetermined by the size of his constituency and how the electoral boundaries are drawn.
There can be little doubt that the stakes for the 14th general election will be high. Barisan Nasional has seen its support eroding in the last two general elections where they were not preceded by a delineation exercise.
The 2004 11th GE saw BN winning with a history-making landslide majority, partly because of the “Give Pak Lah a chance” factor but also because, likely, it was preceded by the 2003 delineation.
Historically, BN has done much better than the preceding general election after each delineation exercise.
Since the 2003 exercise, the EC has not had a chance to conduct a redelineation exercise and three general elections have passed.
A lot has changed in our political landscape since then and will probably continue to change. Since 2004, where BN secured 63.9% of the votes and 90% of the seats, its support has been on a slide downwards to 50.3% in 2008 and 46.5% in 2013.
Given this fact, how important is this redelineation exercise to Barisan Nasional? I would say this is a do-or-die re-delineation for the ruling coalition.
It would be safe to say that to a large extent the outcome of the next general election and the type of political rhetoric over the next few years would be determined by the new boundaries the EC will be proposing soon, perhaps in the coming months.
But as I said at the start of this article, redelineation is not just important for BN or the opposition. It is vitally important for us as citizens.
Elections are not so much about which party wins as to whether the people can freely and equally choose the party and candidates of their choice without interference or manipulation. The choice of the people must be accepted and respected and it starts with fair boundaries.
What can we as citizens do? Thankfully, our Federal Constitution provides an avenue for us to participate in the delineation exercise. We are not just hapless pawns but we can have a say in how our boundaries are drawn. It’s our right and it’s our duty.
In the second part of this article on delineation, we will be detailing to you the steps you could take to participate in the upcoming exercise.