Last Updated: 12:09pm, May 15, 2014
THE Election Commission (EC) will be conducting its 6th re-delineation of electoral boundaries very 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 and whether the Opposition will finally become the government of the day will very much depend 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 in free and fair election. The goal of delineation Constituency delineation or delimitation is the process whereby our election boundaries, both Parliamentary and State Assemblies, are redrawn according to the guidelines in the 13th Schedule, Part 1, Section 2 of our Federal Constitution (FC). This exercise must take place after every eight years and it is a normal and necessary exercise in any democracy where elections are held. The reason is that over the course of time, population numbers (voters) change due for various reasons, such as development, intra-migration and natural growth. The last re-delineation was in 2003, except for Sarawak which was in 2005. The objective of a re-delineation exercise is to achieve what our Federal Constitution states, 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). Considerations in 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." This means 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, communities which share shares common interests are kept intact. Representative democracy is about having lawmakers representing the different interests in the nation or state when deliberating 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. 1. Administrative boundaries: Local government plays a very important role in our daily lives. These local authorities or Pihak Berkuasa Tempatan (PBT) set the assessment tax, local by-laws, grant licenses and permits, provide basic amenities, services such as garbage collection, and planning and overseeing development. The quality of our life, for better or worse, can be determined by the local authorities and as such we have a lot in common when we share the same PBT. The boundaries of PBT in urban centres would be the municipality council or "majlis" boundaries, while rural areas follow the district boundaries. By right, the EC should adhere to these boundaries, and electoral boundaries should mirror the PBT boundaries in many areas. But there are also many places, especially urban centres, where such considerations are overlooked. 2. Socio-economic factors: Keeping in mind that one of the goals of re-delineation is to ensure that voters are appropriately represented and their elected representative would lend a voice to their unique interests, the socio-economic status of the majority of voters in a constituency is another a factor. Socio-economic indicators are income, education, occupation and types of housing. If several groups which are significantly different in terms of socio-economic status are placed together in the same constituency, an elected representative may face a dilemma as to which community should he/she speak up for, especially when the interests are in conflict. 3. Natural or geographical boundaries: Natural boundaries created by rivers, seas, mountains, swamps and lakes have been used to demarcate communities throughout the ages. Electoral boundaries should take heed of these as such factors do create accessibility issues and in the past, communication issues. 4. Artificial or man-made boundaries: With development, 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 re-delineation 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. Independent re-delineation would also ensure that the coalition chosen by the majority of voters in the country would have the opportunity to form the next government. Conversely, partisan and unprofessional re-delineation would produce a result that is skewed in favour of a certain political coalition. In the 13th General Election, for the first time in our nation's history, the coalition which achieved the majority of the popular vote at 51%, did not get to form the next government, or even come close to it. The 51% vote obtained translated to only 40% of Parliamentary seats while the ruling coalition, BN, with only 46.5% of the popular vote, still managed to win almost 60% of the seats up for grabs. There are two main reasons for such vote-seat disproportionality - malapportionment and gerrymandering. The 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 allows for exceptions, it should not become the norm and the difference cannot be up nine times as it was 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 are determined by Article 46 of the constitution, and it would be unfair to compare the average for each State against a Federal Territory like Putrajaya. But what about intra-state (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 this all means 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 Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "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 problem began 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 is allowable, we now have out-of-control malapportionment. Don't break us up The second reason for huge disproportions between seats won and votes obtained is the problem of gerrymandering. Wikipedia describes gerrymandering as "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 voting patterns of the last election, a partisan election commission can draw boundaries in such a way that at the next election, assuming that voters will vote in pretty much the same way, the result would favour a particular party or coalition. One tell-tale signs of a gerrymandered constituency is when its shape looks very odd with unnatural contusions and indentations. One just has 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 opposition 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 over what constitutes "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 Bahru, where two polling districts, Sri Amar (1,814 voters) and Belantik (2,503 voters) were taken out of the parliamentary seat of Johor Bahru in the 2003 delineation exercise. They were then 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 Highway separating it from its new fellow voters in Johor Jaya. What spurred such a delineation decision? Could it be that both these two polling districts are solid backers of the ruling coalition and that Johor Bahru 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 few common interests, and where PBT, natural and artificial boundaries are ignored. Another consequence is the quality of representation. The elected representative who should speak on behalf of his or her constituency has to decide who to represent. The rich business class, the middle income earners or the low-income earners in the rural fringes of his constituency? Does it matter or does anyone really care? Beam me up, Scotty! There is another more insidious form of electoral manipulation. According to Article 119(1)(b) of the FC, we are to vote in the constituency where we reside but there has been evidence that voters were transferred to vote in other constituencies instead of the one they reside in. One notable testimony was given at The People's Tribunal on GE13. Mr GS 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 the exact number of voters unconstitutionally transferred but as we traveled the length and breadth of this country conducting talks on delineation, we came across people who indicated that either they themselves or people they know, 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! What can citizens do? There can be little doubt that the stakes for the 14th General Election will be high. BN has seen its support eroding in the last two polls which were not preceded by a delineation exercise. The 11th GE in 2004 saw BN winning with a history-making landslide majority, partly due to the "Give Pak Lah a chance" factor but also because, very likely, it was preceded by the 2003 delineation. Historically, BN does much better after a delineation exercise. Since the 2003 exercise, the EC has not had a chance to conduct a re-delineation and three General Elections have passed. Since 2004, when BN secured 63.9% of popular votes and 90% of the seats, its support has decreased to 50.3% in 2008 and 46.5% in 2013. Given this fact, I would say the coming re-delineation is a do-or-die for the ruling coalition. But beyond the interest of the BN or Opposition, re-delineation 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 can have a say in how our boundaries are drawn. It's our right and it's our duty. In the next article on delineation, we will be detailing to you the steps you could take to participate in the upcoming exercise.
Thomas Fann is the Head of DART which stands for Delineation Action & Research Team, a joint project of Bersih 2.0 and Engage. He is also Bersih 2.0's vice-chair for the Southern Peninsula and chairman of Engage. Much of the credit for the research on delineation must go to Dr. Wong Chin Huat of the Penang Institute and numerous others patriotic Malaysians who chose not to be identified. For more information on DART, you can visit www.bersih.org.
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