April 30, 2018
Malaysia: GE14 takes this electoral unfairness to new lows
by Dr. Bridget Welsh
COMMENT | It is a given that elections in Malaysia are unfair, but GE14 takes this unfairness to new lows. Malapportionment, gerrymandering, back-door movements of voters, alleged phantom voters, manipulation of regulations, and apparent bias of government officials are seriously discrediting this election like no other.
This article looks at the potential impact of these manoeuvres and argues that given the competitiveness of the contests, these factors have the potential to seriously influence the result.
The analysis below is based on an assessment of changes at the polling station level on parliamentary seats using 2017 fourth quarter electoral roll (the one to be used for the May polls), drawing from a study of voting behavior across the past four elections, and aims to take account of a broad range of factors shaping electoral integrity.
The embedded advantages the BN government have are significant and should not be underestimated.
There has been extensive analysis of the March 2018 delineation exercise, what I am calling the “front door” delineation as it is open to the public and easier assessment.
Analysts have pointed out that the malapportionment means that the BN can win a majority of seats with as low as 16.5% of the vote and that the delineation imbalances representation away from urban areas, Chinese communities and was inconsistently applied in rural areas along partisan lines especially in favour of Umno.
They have also note the partisan “packing” and “cracking” of seats in the gerrymandering, which has resulted in many close seats favouring BN. Most of the discussion has centred on close races or marginal seats such as Lembah Pantai and Hang Tuah Jaya (formerly Bukit Katil).
There have been four dimensions of the analysis to date that have not been properly raised. First of all, there is greater sophistication in the movement of voters this time around, tied to the advantage that the BN has with information and technology (GIS mapping). Much of the movement is subtler, less obvious but equally as calculating.
Second, it is not only race that is being used to move voters, but class and histories of voting patterns in areas. Lower class areas are being moved, for example, as they are seen to be more susceptible to vote-buying and electoral promises.
Traditional areas that vote in established patterns have been also moved to shore up seats, such as the movement of a PAS-leaning village and its polling station into a competitive seat, with the hope that this movement, for example, will allow the three-corner fight to allow BN to win.
Third, with the movement, there are winners and losers. Much of the analysis centres on the BN and particularly UMNO’s advantages, but not all the BN component parties have benefited to the same degree and some individuals within parties have benefited more than others.
The delineation exercise has a personal dimension, with winners such as Hishammuddin Hussein and his new ‘military’ camp in his area of Sembrong, discussed below.
Equally important in the analysis is the need to acknowledge that the movement has come from somewhere, so that other seats have become “safer” (in the case of packing votes in these seats, e.g. Beruas and Damansara (formerly PJ Utara)) or more competitive as a result of the movements (Johor Bharu).
Finally, the delineation exercise is based on assumptions about voting behaviour. The history of 2018 Malaysia’s delineation exercise has been that while UMNO has disproportionately benefited, especially in the election right after the exercise, that many of the assumptions do not hold over time as voting patterns change. The decision to create mixed seats backfired in 2008, as did the creation of more Malay majority seats in 1999.
The important assumptions in this exercise on the peninsula are the:
- persistence of ethnic voting patterns (Chinese in favour of the opposition, Malays split but in favour of BN, and Indians favouring the opposition) and;
- that three-corner fights would split the vote advantaging the BN and vote-buying would continue to be decisive in shaping outcomes, especially in rural and lower class areas as well as in key states such as Sarawak (which has had its own delineation exercise in 2016).
In the 2018 exercise, it was also assumed that UMNO’s base – the civil service and large sections of the Malay rural heartland – would stay with the BN. How much these assumptions play out in the election will shape the effectiveness of the BN in using the delineation to its advantage.
I raise this, as voting that contradicts these assumptions – such as less impact of money or defections within the military as occurred in 1999 – weaken the expected delineation effects.
‘Backdoor’ voter movements
It is important not to just look at the “front door” exercise alone, as much of what has happened has not been in public purview. The polling station analysis is perhaps the best viable way to assess systematic changes that are more hidden, as they allow us to drill down to effects in communities.
The analysis below looks at changes in voter levels and composition at the polling station level. Here we find changes in areas that were not part of the 2018 delineation exercise, such as in Sabah. We also get a better sense of the breadth of changes happening to the electoral terrain as a whole.
The “backdoor” manoeuvres focus primarily on voter movements and additions. Under the “backdoor” measures, there has been the introduction of new voters to areas in the form of military “camps” in areas such as Sembrong, Segamat, Bera, and Bagan Datuk (where BN ministers Hishamuddin Hussein, Subramaniam, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, and Zahid Hamidi are incumbents and contesting again), concerns about the surprising movement of voters from one polling station to another (including families in the same house), re-emergence of voters who have passed away and the ‘immaculate’ registration of voters who appear on the roll but did not register.
These developments raise a different set of issues. First is the systematic voter suppression that has occurred since 2013. The changes to the voting registration process, namely taking away the ability for political parties to register voters and making the post office the focal point of registration rather than through an automatic system, have depressed voting.
BN has had the advantage in registration as many of their appointees in local communities have still been able to register voters. There have been complaints that even those who have registered through the post office have not necessarily seen their vote on the electoral roll.
There are 3.8 million voters who have not been registered, a record amount compared to earlier elections. This decline in voter registration is more impactful in some places rather than others. While most of the lack of registration has occurred in urban areas and among young voters, states such as Sabah and Selangor have been most affected by this lack of voter registration.
A second factor is the number, placement and composition of new voters. The national average increase in voters since 2013 in a seat is 16%. Some seats are above the average as a result of the “front door” delineation changes, e.g. Kapar or Hang Tuah Jaya.
Other seats have been affected by either significant registration in the seat by parties (BN or opposition, e.g. Tebrau) or unexplained placement of voters in seats, e.g. remote Pensiangan and Kinabatangan. Where these new voters are placed, and in line with how those areas have voted, suggest potential inclinations for voting.
Questions are raised in some of these areas about the origin of these voters as well, e.g. the alleged Rohingya voters in Langkawi for example.
UMNO Supporters–UMNO Dulu, Sekarang Dan Selama Selamanya( UMNO Past, Present and Forever)
Third, is the issue of advance (military and police personnel with their spouses) and postal votes (traditionally overseas voters but now expanded). In 2013, 23 seats or 10.3% of the overall Parliament was determined by advance/postal votes, e.g. Segamat. These votes are equally important this time around, as advance votes comprise around 300,000 voters.
What distinguishes GE14 is the expansion of categories of postal voters. In October and December of last year new categories of voters have been added, civil service in the Prisons Department, Fire and Rescue Department, Police Volunteer Reserve, Immigration Department, and National Registration Department.
We have yet to have a full assessment of the number and placement of these ‘new’ postal votes, but they may reach another estimated 300,000 voters, potentially doubling the count and the electoral impact on outcomes.
Importantly, there is less transparency in postal voting compared to both advance and polling day casting of ballots, as candidates are not able to know who they are, where the votes will go until days before the election and whether they are in fact, legitimate voters.
These changes have taken place in an environment where access to the voting roll has been more restricted, with soft copies not readily accessible and addresses of voters (crucial for assessing reliability) have not been listed in the final version.
These changes have also taken place in a process where it has become harder to challenge the voting roll, as charges of RM10 have been imposed for questioning one individual voter and if the objection is rejected a penalty up to RM200 is imposed.
At the same time, there have been systematic “objections” against younger and Chinese voters on the part of partisan actors that appear dubious and orchestrated, and have had the effect of removing some genuine voters from the roll, notably perceived opposition voters. These measures have only served to raise further questions about the integrity of the electoral roll and undermine the credibility of the electoral process.
‘Estimated’ potential electoral effects
Given these dimensions/assumptions and looking at the history of voting in different areas, what then does the analysis at the polling station level tell us? A word of caution as you read ahead.
This analysis is an estimate, based on past voting rather than what might happen next week. It includes an assessment of a combination of the “front and back door” delineation changes that are accessible, including changes due to the boundary and seat changes, registration of new voters and changes to advance voters.
It does not include the potential effect of postal votes as this information is not yet available. The findings show that a substantive level of calculation and broad scope changes have taken place in the electoral terrain.
Of the 222 parliamentary seats, the changes are estimated to affect 119 of the seats or 54% of the overall seats. Of these affected, disproportionately 73 or 33% of the overall Parliament changes to seats favour the BN, while 46 seats or 21% favour the opposition. This is a significant advantage for the BN, as the changes have largely occurred in competitive (marginal) seats.
Many changes have not occurred in “safe” BN seats, such as those in Perlis. Also, changes in favour of the opposition in seats are their “safe” seats, such as Damansara (previously PJ Utara).
The opposition has also had some areas not affected at all, e.g. Penang. However, two of the most competitive states – Selangor and Sabah – have the largest number of seats affected, making these states much more competitive than before, and disproportionately these advantages are in BN’s favour.
Among the more competitive seats delineated that are estimated to favour BN are Alor Setar, Bandar Tun Razak, Bangi, Baram, Batu Sapi, Bukit Gantang, Dungun, Gombak, Hulu Langat, Hulu Rajang, Jerantut, Kalabakan, Keningau, Kota Kinabalu, Kota Raja, Kuala Nerus, Kuala Selangor, Kuala Trengganu, Kuantan, Kubang Kerian, Kubang Pasu, Kulai, Lanang, Lumut, Lembah Pantai, Merbok, Muar, Pandan, Penampang, Pensiangan, Pokok Sena, Pulai, Sarikei, Segamat, Semporna, Sepanggar, Stampin, Tawau, Tenom, Temerloh and Wangsa Maju.
Among the seats delineated that are estimated to work against BN and thus remain competitive or have become safer for the opposition, are Ayer Hitam, Bakri, Bentong, Besut, Kota Melaka, Johor Bahru, Kuala Kedah, Marang, Pengkalan Chepa, Pasir Mas, Rompin, Rasah, Setiu, Taiping, Tambun and Tapah.
Let me pull out a few from above that have not received much attention in analyses to date. Consider Johor Bharu – long held by Umno veteran Sharir Samad, who is contesting again. Not only does he have the taint of being Felda chairperson amidst its scandals, he now has a less favourable seat to contest in as a result of movement of voters outside of the new boundaries. JB has moved from “safe” to “competitive” seat due to changes.
Consider Stampin in Sarawak. This seat has become more competitive for BN this election as a result of the removal of around 18,000 voters during the 2016 delineation exercise. These voters have been placed into the DAP “safe” seat of Bandar Kuching. Stampin is now more competitive for BN’s Dr Sim Kui Hian. The delineation factor was also critical in the BN win for Sim in the 2016 state elections.
Let’s examine Sabah, where the effects are a product of voter movement. The placement of new voters in many of the Kadazan/Dusun/Murut seats, such as Pensiangan and Keningau, are estimated to advantage the BN. These seats remain highly competitive.
On the East Coast of Sabah, the highly competitive seat of Batu Sapi also sees new voters coming in traditional polling areas that have favoured the BN. This seat, for example, has long been accused of having illegal voters registered. The list is long, as the changes are comprehensive and deep.
Najib’s (un)safety net
How then should we assess these potential effects? On the one hand, it would seem that the BN has done whatever it can to put itself in the most advantageous position. It is has done so openly and with more additional opaque measures, arguably the most comprehensive attempt to skew the electoral terrain to its advantage.
The full extent of the electoral impact of the changes is not yet fully clear. It is also important to recognise that all the changes are not to BN’s advantage, as some of the seats have strengthened the opposition, notably DAP e.g. Bandar Kuching.
BN’s Achilles heel is that it is dependent on the accuracy of the assumptions that went into the delineation exercise. If these assumptions prove not to pan out as expected, BN is vulnerable. BN is also dependent on people carrying out the measures to make these changes effective, e.g. money will need to go down to voters as opposed to staying in the hands of elites.
Given the fluidity in GE14, and the anger at Najib himself within the system, these cannot be guaranteed for his government, although the incentive of money inside the system is strong.
The fact that the Najib government has introduced the breadth of changes it has, undermining the electoral integrity and skewing the electoral field to such an extent, is not a sign of strength but weakness. It remains to be seen whether the imbalances in the system will reach a tipping point that has the potential to backfire on Najib himself.