Malaysian MPs vote to redraw electoral map despite outcry

by M. Jegathesan

Kuala Lumpur (AFP) - Malaysian lawmakers voted Wednesday to redraw the electoral map in what critics slammed as a bid to rig looming polls, sparking angry protests outside parliament and fury from opposition MPs inside.

The election is expected within weeks and Prime Minister Najib Razak is battling to keep his long-ruling coalition in power despite allegations that billions of dollars were looted from a sovereign wealth fund he founded.

He is also facing a tough challenge from an opposition headed by veteran ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, 92, who is seeking to win over the government's traditional support base of rural Muslim voters.

After a heated debate in parliament, which is dominated by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favour of a bill to redraw constituency boundaries despite concerns that it will unfairly tilt the election in Najib's favour.

Opposition lawmakers got to their feet and jeered at the ruling coalition MPs and waved placards that read "rise up to stop cheating".

The changes must now by given royal assent but that is expected to happen quickly.

The opposition claims the overhaul will favour Najib's coalition by decreasing voter numbers in BN's traditional seats, making it easier for their MPs to be elected, and creating more constituencies dominated by the traditionally pro-government Muslim Malay majority.

But lawmaker Liang Teck Meng, whose party is a member of the ruling coalition, told parliament the opposition opposed the changes as "they know they will not get the mandate of the people to rule the country".

- 'Scandalous' -

Hundreds of protesters marched to parliament as the bill was tabled, waving banners that read "stealing an election is not winning an election", and were joined at one point by Mahathir, who denounced the changes as "kleptocracy".

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, deputy leader of the opposition coalition Pact of Hope and wife of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, told AFP the electoral overhaul was "scandalous".

"We believe an election victory may be stolen from us," she said.

The controversy over state fund 1MDB has rocked Najib's administration, with the US Justice Department alleging that $4.5 billion was stolen in a campaign of fraud and money-laundering. Najib and 1MDB deny wrongdoing.

Nevertheless, Najib is tipped to win at the elections -- which must be called by August at the latest, but are expected sooner -- due to BN's tight grip on the system and the weakness of the opposition.

BN, which has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957, is under pressure to do better in the looming polls after losing the popular vote for the first time in 2013, and as discontent grows at graft scandals, race-based politics in the multi-ethnic country and rising living costs.

Redrawing constituencies to favour the government is nothing new in Malaysia and has been used for decades by BN leaders, including Mahathir.

The passing of the law was the latest sign polls are looming.

The government earlier this week tabled a bill seeking to outlaw "fake news" that would punish offenders with up to 10 years in prison, a move critics say is designed to stifle dissent before the election.