Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak has been accused of resorting to “dirty tricks” and “downright cheating” in the run up to the general election, after he pushed through a series of laws which allegedly favour his party and target his critics.
Over the past week, two pieces of legislation – one which has redrawn the electoral map and the other which cracks down on so-called “fake news” – have been hurriedly pushed through parliament, bypassing widespread objections.
With parliament due to be dissolved on Friday and the election held soon after, regional experts described the legislation as “desperate measures” by Najib, whose election success is now far from assured.
“Najib is using the executive power and legislation to strengthen his hand,” said Bridget Welsh, a professor of political science at John Cabot University who specialises in Malaysian politics. Welsh described a “a reservoir of discontent with Najib“, and said the “excessive laws show insecurity and weakness going into this election”.
Najib has been prime minister since 2009, but in recent years his popularity has plummeted, due both to the international shame of the 1MDB corruption scandaland the handling of the still-missing MH370 plane, but also thanks to the rising cost of living in Malaysia. His election chances have also not been improved by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed, who was once Najib’s mentor, re-entering the political fray at 92-years-old to lead the opposition coalition with a single-minded goal of toppling his former protege.
Gerrymandering and biased reorganisation of the electoral map have long been a tactic of ruling governments in Malaysia prior to an election, but the extent of the recent changes – up to 40% in some parliamentary constituencies – and the surreptitious manner in which it was pushed through has left many reeling.
The electoral commission, which is under Najib’s control, has been accused of vastly increasing mal-apportionment – when a system is skewed to prevent a large section of society being represented – to disenfranchise groups who traditionally vote for the opposition. Welsh said Malaysia now had one of the “worst cases of mal-apportionment in the world”.
Parliamentary constitutiencies usually won by parties in Najib’s ruling Barisa Nasional coalition have been made smaller, with an average of 48,000 voters – making it far easier to win the popular vote – while the seats usually held by the opposition now have an average of 79,000 voters. Nine out of the top ten largest constituencies are those usually held by the opposition.
Shahrul Aman, chair of BERSIH, an organistaion pushing for electoral reform, said they had identified seven major constitutional violations in the new delineation law. “It is covertly giving the upper hand to Barisa Nasional by downplaying the popular votes. The terrible fact that Malaysians have to face is that with only 16.5% of the popular vote, the current government can rule the country.”
The Malaysian constitution stipulates time must be given in the delineation process for voters to object, but Aman said they “bulldozed” the law through, calling on barely any of the tens of thousands who registered objections. A revised version of the delineation bill was put forward to appease objectors, with only 4% changes to constituencies, but many were shocked to find that when the legislation was tabled in parliament, the government simply went back to the first version.
“It is an attempt to steal the election,” said Aman. “Delineation has always been abused by the ruling government but this is definitely a progression, the downright cheating has been aggravated.”
Najib’s “fake news” bill, which was passed on Tuesday has been seen as equally alarming. It allows prison sentences of up to six years for spreading “fake news”, but many are concerned it will simply be used to crack down on critics of Najib, with the government given the power to decide what counts as fake news.
The US State department expressed concern at its possible infringement on freedom of speech, and Meredith Weiss, a specialist in south-east Asian politics, said: “Full stop, this anti-fake news law is not business as usual – this is extreme even for Malaysia.”
The law, which was given minimal scrutiny in parliament, also gave the government power to go after alleged fake news spread on popular messenger app Whatsapp. Whilst Whatsapp is encrypted and so virtually impossible for a government to monitor, it is still likely to create a climate of fear and self-censorship in Malaysia, said Weiss. Many in Malaysia have already reported a quietening down of outspoken voices on social media.
“It does seem like a pretty stark tightening of the reigns,” said Weiss. “It’s going to be a nasty campaign.”