KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia’s ruling party is facing its greatest crisis of legitimacy yet. Long seen as a modern and moderate Muslim democracy, Malaysia has been riding on its economic growth and good diplomacy for years, and the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has led coalition governments for nearly six decades, has been claiming the credit.
But rampant corruption, curbs on freedom of expression, a slowing economy and a currency in free fall have eroded public trust in the government’s stewardship. It hasn’t helped that Prime Minister Najib Razak recently reshuffled the cabinet, and sacked the deputy prime minister and the attorney general for asking uncomfortable questions. Or that once again the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), is using its influence over government agencies to bypass or manipulate electoral rules to its advantage, most recently through gerrymandering in the eastern state of Sarawak.
The last general election, in 2013, was criticized for many irregularities: flawed voter lists, gags on the media, the malapportionment of seats in Parliament and state legislatures. Although the Constitution highlights the importance of having a national Election Commission that “enjoys public confidence,” the commission has been doing the government’s bidding for many years. BN won just over 47 percent of the popular vote in 2013, compared with nearly 51 percent for the opposition. But it gained control of about 60 percent of the seats in Parliament.
The latest financial scandal to rock Mr. Najib also bears on electoral improprieties. The state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), whose advisory board is chaired by the prime minister, is fending off allegations of mismanagement; critics say it cannot account for some 27 billion ringgit in debt (about $6.6 billion). In early July, the U.K.-based Sarawak Report website and The Wall Street Journal reported that nearly $700 million had been transferred into personal accounts of Mr. Najib just before the 2013 election, suggesting a connection to entities linked to 1MDB. The anti-corruption agency claims instead that the money was a donation from the Middle East.
Last week, Tourism and Culture Minister Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz explained that “a brotherly nation” had made the contribution “to see certain parties win in the general election because we’re friendly to them,” adding, “There’s nothing wrong.” But the opposition People’s Justice Party has filed a suit against Mr. Najib, 1MDB and the Election Commission alleging that these donations were illegal, and as a result the 2013 election should be “declared null and void.”
The Election Commission has a long history of manipulating the electoral system to the benefit of the powers that be. After the 1999 general election, it came under attack for enabling and covering up a vast vote-buying scheme in the eastern state of Sabah, in which local authorities distributed identity cards to tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who then used them to vote — usually, anecdotal evidence suggests, for BN.
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The Election Commission also oversaw the delineation of voting districts in much of the country in 2002-2003. A study by the Center for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity at Oxford University found that the process revealed a political bias in favor of the ruling coalition. “If the BN itself had redrawn the constituency boundaries to its own benefit,” the report found, “it couldn’t have done a much better job than the Election Commission.”
One of the Election Commission’s tactics was to break up constituencies that were BN strongholds so as to increase the number of seats allotted to them in Parliament, and thus bolster the BN’s potential gains. At the same time, it clumped together constituencies dominated by the opposition, reducing those constituencies’ total number of representatives and the opposition’s chances.
In a survey of elections in 127 countries between 2012 and 2014, the Electoral Integrity Project, an independent academic study, ranked Malaysia’s 2013 election 114 on its scale of perceived integrity. Yet today, nearly the same Election Commission that oversaw the voting in 2013 — all but two of its seven members remain — is in charge of redelineating voting districts again. And instead of correcting the system’s existing flaws, it appears to be exacerbating them.
The boundaries of Malaysia’s voting constituencies are to be redrawn ahead of the next general election, planned for late 2017 or early 2018, ostensibly in order to increase the representativeness of both Parliament and state legislatures. The effort started in Sarawak because the state is due to hold local elections by August 2016. So far, the Electoral Commission’s recommendations would increase the representation of less populated rural areas relative to that of more populated urban areas, which favors BN because it tends to fare better than the opposition in Sarawak’s rural parts.
A member of the state assembly from the People’s Justice Party and an individual representing a group of voters have challenged the Sarawak redistricting in court, claiming, among other things, that its lack of transparency violates their constitutional rights. The High Court of Sabah and Sarawak in Kuching agreed, but its decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal. That decision is now being appealed before the Federal Court, Malaysia’s court of last resort. (I have been involved with both appeals, helping represent the parties questioning the redelineation.)
Despite this challenge and civil society’s longstanding complaints that the Election Commission is not independent, Shahidan Kassim, a minister in the prime minister’s office, recently declared being “satisfied” with its performance. This stands to reason: Mr. Najib, who is under growing pressure to resign over financial improprieties, could use a big win in the Sarawak election, to steady himself before the national election.
Once again, the people of Malaysia risk being cheated out of an election. To prevent this, a citizens’ movement known as Bersih (which I once co-chaired and is now led by Maria Chin Abdullah) is calling for a peaceful mass rally on Aug. 29-30 to demand free and fair elections and a clean government — starting with Mr. Najib’s resignation.
In addition to Bersih’s demands, redistricting should be suspended, and the Election Commission should be dismantled. A new commission should be appointed in consultation with civil society.
Malaysia is a country adrift. The government is failing us. The Election Commission is compromised. The rule of law is eroding. The people of Malaysia must take to the streets to reclaim our democracy and the soul of our nation.
Ambiga Sreenevasan is the president of Malaysia’s National Human Rights Society (Hakam) and former co-chair of Bersih, a movement for free and fair elections.