IN LAST year’s general election, the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), won 47% of the vote but took 60% of the 222 parliamentary seats. The opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), won a majority of the popular vote (51%)—but only 40% of the seats. To many disenchanted Malaysians, the result was a glaring example of the systematic rigging that, they claim, is designed to keep the ruling coalition in power. The main party, the United Malays National Organisation, has been in office since independence in 1957.
This backdrop explains why the regular boundary delineation that the election commission embarked upon earlier this year has become so important. Ensuring that constituencies are fair, representative and not distorted is a struggle for democracies everywhere (consider the gerrymandered seats of America’s Congress). But in Malaysia the problems are particularly bad. With its ethnic-Chinese support concentrated in densely populated urban seats, the opposition gets fewer MPs for every vote it wins than does the BN, which has a lot of seats in rural areas where most Malays live. The two east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak are notorious in this respect; they are known as the BN’s “fixed deposits”. A seat like Kapar (held by PR in Selangor province) has nine times more voters than Putrajaya (nominally the country’s federal capital and held by Barisan). But both return one MP.