KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Wednesday introduced a controversial proposal in parliament to redraw electoral boundaries that critics say will give the ruling coalition an easy win in the upcoming elections.
Hundreds of Malaysians marched to parliament ahead of the bill’s introduction, which was delayed by about an hour after opposition lawmakers objected.
The opposition and critics say the proposed electoral boundaries would benefit Najib’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which is facing arguably its toughest polls since independence over 60 years ago, by stuffing large number of opposition-leaning voters into fewer seats and dividing constituencies along racial lines.
The plan was drawn up by the Election Commision (EC), and the government says it is free from political interference.
“The government did not disturb or influence the EC in their work, and respects decisions made by EC in the interest of the people and the country,” Najib told the parliament as he tabled the report.
A general election must be held by August, but Najib is widely expected to call elections in a matter of days after the redrawing proposal is approved.
The proposal will not change the number of parliamentary or state seats, but will modify the size of several constituencies.
Selangor - the country’s richest state and one of the few controlled by the opposition - will see voter demographics change in 18 of its 22 parliamentary seats.
Johor, where the ruling coalition is expected to face a tough battle, will see changes to 19 of its 26 parliamentary seats.
The redrawing of boundaries will lead to some large pro-opposition constituencies with more than 100,000 voters, while pro-government seats are much smaller, critics say.
For instance, in Selangor state outside Kuala Lumpur, the biggest parliamentary constituency would be Damansara - held by the opposition - with 150,439 voters, while the smallest one would be Sabak Bernam - held by BN - at 37,126.
The proposal is expected to get the simple majority needed for parliamentary approval.
Electoral boundaries were last changed in 2003, under the leadership of then-premier Mahathir. He, too, was accused of manipulating the process in favor of the ruling coalition, which has held power since independence from Britain in 1957.
Mahathir, 92, who led Malaysia for 22 years, is now running as the opposition’s candidate for prime minister against Najib, his former protégé.
Earlier on Wednesday, pro-democracy activists and opposition party leaders marched to the parliament carrying banners and placards.
Security was heightened at parliament’s main gate, which was blocked by riot police, some armed with teargas guns.
“We totally do not agree with the (EC) report. This is the biggest cheating to ever happen,” said Maria Chin Abdullah, the former chairwoman of civil society group, Bersih.
“They want to bulldoze the report that contradicts the constitution, ignores the rule of law and manipulates the electoral rolls,” she said.
Najib is under pressure to deliver an emphatic victory, as he grapples with a scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), and public anxiety over rising living costs.
Earlier this week, the government tabled a bill seeking to outlaw “fake news”, which prescribes fines and up to 10 years in jail, raising more concern about media freedom in the wake of the 1MDB scandal.
The anti-fake news bill is expected to be debated and passed on Thursday.
The government already has stringent laws to control the media, and has in the past shut down political blogs and news websites.
It has also hounded the opposition. The former opposition head, Anwar Ibrahim, is in jail on sodomy charges and a number of opposition lawmakers have been investigated or charged with sedition or other offenses since the last elections in 2013.
Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; writing by A. Ananthalakshmi; editing by Bill Tarrant