Malaysia general election 2013

Malaysia goes to the polls on 5 May. The lower houses of the federation and 12 of the 13 states are up for grabs. There is no real question about whether Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader, will win, but there is a large question about whether that will show in the allocation of seats.


Malaysia has an electoral gerrymander that would have drawn a blush to the cheeks of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who ruled Queensland long after his party had ceased attracting anything like a majority of votes. At the 2008 national election, Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat coalition won more than 50 per cent of the popular vote but took just 82 seats in the 222-seat parliament. The government held the rural seat of Putrajaya with just 6008 votes while the opposition needed 112,000 votes to take the urban seat of Kapar, in Selangor state.

Analysis by Bersih, the Malaysian corruption and election watchdog, has found that the gerry-mander means it is feasible for the ruling coalition to achieve a simple majority in parliament with as little as 18.9 per cent of the popular vote.

The really interesting things to watch will be the extent that Anwar’s predicted majority will be allowed to show in the results, and the extent to which the security forces will allow him to take office.

17 thoughts on “Malaysia general election 2013

  1. Is Malaysia considered to be a democracy or is it a borderline case similar to Mexico before the PRI lost power in the 2000 Presidential Election?

    How does the bureaucracy adapt to a new government if the same party has ran the country for 56 years? Will there be electoral reform? Has the FPTP system serve Malaysia well or would it be better to consider moving toward an MMP system to reduce gerrymandering?

  2. Although Malaysia has semi-free elections, I believe Alan is correct in the “block” in which he chose to plant this one. (Thanks, Alan!)

  3. @ Suaprazzodi

    Malaysia, rather like Singapore, Cambodia and Vietnam, is hard to classify. Maybe ‘authoritarian democracy’ comes closest.

    The ruling Barisan Nasional is a coalition of ethnically-based groups that, in theory, represent the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities within the country. The reality is that UMNO, the Malay group, has almost entirely eclipsed the other two groups and has itself become highly centralised and very corrupt.

    Malaysia is moving quite quickly towards outright dictatorship and I suspect it is only pressure from Indonesia that is slowing the pace. The current prime minister, Najib, has promised a peaceful transition if he loses the election, but whether the entrenched, business, bureaucratic and military elites behind him will allow that is another question.

    The first structural reform I would suggest to Anwar if he is allowed to take power is an independent electoral commission.


    I did try to add a Malaysia tag but was unsuccessful.

    The excellent New Mandala, based at the Australian National University, has much more detail and could perhaps be added to the blogroll.

  4. Also, (according to wikipedia), it was Barisan Nasional which had majority in 2008 and not the opposition.

  5. My (weak) understanding of the districting in Malaysia is that there are both gerrymandering (politically driven boundary-delimitation) and malapportionment (unequal district populations, despite same magnitude [1] for every district).

    While one can have gerrymandering with minimal malapportionment (US House delegations), I have understood that Malaysia’s malapportionment is itself one of the (deliberate, politically driven) products of gerrymandering. What is less clear to me is if there is also gerrymandering independent of malappoertionment, by which I mean whether district lines are manipulated to produce minority-majority districts as part of the BN’s multi-ethnic coalition. Or is UMNO so dominant within the BN that it does not need to do this sort of gerrymandering?

  6. @JD

    There is a high degree of corruption in electoral administration. I am not sure that anyone outside the Najib government accepts those figures. There is considerable evidence of both malapportionment and gerrymandering. I do not know the specific source for the Sunday Morning Herald article I quoted in the original post.

    Frankly the M/G distinction is a bit wistful, in my view. The test should be whether the districts accurately represent the electors.

    Whether failure to represent the electors results from one process or another, and whether either or both processes are deliberate or accidental, is not really a significant issue.

    • I disagree. The distinction between malapportionment and gerrymandering is well worth preserving. For one thing, the remedy might be different depending on which it is. Second, malapportionment is sometimes justified on representational grounds, as part of the constitutional design. (Whether any of us agrees with the justification is a different matter.) Gerrymandering as a means to entrench a ruling party (or ethnic group, etc.) is indefensible by almost any standard, although there are of course arguments (again, not ones I am promoting) for “affirmative gerrymandering” in the case of creating districts to favor under-represented groups. Gerrymandering or malapportionment can occur without the other, but gerrymandering can also be one of the tools for generating politically motivated malapportionment.

      The distinction is analytically useful, even if both processes take us to the same place identified by Alan: distorted representation of voters.

  7. The problem is that it allows an out for electoral distortion by imposing a subjective test: ‘Is this a deliberate result?’ instead of an objective test: ‘Did the electors get what they voted for?’.

    The US courts, for instance, seem to feel that electoral distortion does not exist unless it can be proved that a particular apportionment was consciously and deliberately designed to produce a distorted result. An objective test would be much harder to evade and much easier to prove.

    This attitude sounded, to a certain extent, in recent discussion of the US house result.

  8. Pace Alan and accord MSS, I think it does make a difference whether the dog is kicked or tripped over, to borrow Oliver Wendell Holmes’ phrase.

    We’ve identified three factors that can distort the translation of votes into seats:

    (a) deliberate arrangement of electoral boundaries (even with equal numbers of votes per seat), aka “gerrymandering” – refined by US practitioners into “cracking, packing and stacking”..

    (b) non-per-capita apportionment, aka “malapportionment”, ie unequal numbers of voters per seat in different electoral districts. In theory, this could be used to compensate for differing levels of party support to make the result more proportional – eg, one city of 6 million voters where every district is 60% safe for the winning side gets six SMDs, while another city of the same population where all seats are marginal gets five SMDs, so that all 11 representatives across both cities are elected with 60,000 votes (60,000 out of 100,000 in the first case and 60,000 out of 120,000 in the second). The Queensland Nationals used to run a version of this argument, pointing out that many rural districts piled up large majorities for their candidate. But in practice, this is never the purpose or effect of unequal voter numbers.

    (c) Pure dumb luck. Take, for example, the Swiss National Council system, which must rank among the highest in the world for immunity from political manipulation. Not only are seats apportioned almost completely per capita, but the boundaries are fixed by the Cantonal borders, and the total number of deputies is fixed by the Federal Constitution at 200, and thus immune to NSW-style manipulation (109 seats, then 99, then 91, now 94…). Yet even if Switzerland had a two-party system like Malta (or two solid left/ right blocks with joinder of lists to avoid vote-splitting), it is still possible for a majority reversal to occur.

    I suspect that, if one did, under these circumstances it would be accepted as the luck of the draw. Australia had majority reversals in two of the four elections held in a decade (1990 and 1998) but, since the House boundaries are close to equal and are drawn by an independent commission, no one (at least, no SMD supporters) cried foul.

    Having said that, I agree with Alan that direct “smoking gun” evidence of malicious intent (secret meetings in some Atlanta gentlemen’s club to draw maps, or however it’s done in the US) should not be necessary. Rather, the test should be whether a more proportional set of boundaries can be drawn, in which case deliberate refusal to adopt those boundaries means res ipsa loquitur.

  9. The luck of the draw issue raised by Tom is, in my view, a good argument for a Malta-style/Tasmania-style corrective bonus, although it should be calculated from the 2PP, not from first preferences.

  10. I think I would probably say ‘allegedly’ rather than ‘apparently’.

    The previous UMNO leader (and therefore BN leader and prime minister) Abdullah Badawi as removed by UMNO for losing the 2/3 majority that BN had held before 2008. Najib Razak, on the official figures, did not regain the 2/3 majority and lost further seats, although he did regain control of one state from the opposition. Before 2008 the BN was accustomed to using its 2/3 majority to make extensive changes to the constitution.

    The opposition has contested the result although that will almost certainly go nowhere.

  11. Just to back my previous comment, Tom Pepinsky writes at New Mandala:

    What we learn here is that almost 61% of the variation in the two-party vote share going to the Barisan Nasional candidate can be predicted by knowing just what percentage of the district’s population is Malay…and nothing more.

    The other important finding is that the BN won almost 60% of the seats with less than half of the votes. My preliminary data have 5,241,699 votes going to the BN and 5,623,243 for the PR, or 48.2% of the two-party vote share for the ruling coalition (again excluding Ibrahim Ali from the BN). This is possible for two reasons: the BN lost heavily in more races than it won heavily, and it tended to win in districts with smaller populations due to gerrymandering (or “rural bias”).

    I’d add that the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, the non-Malay components of the Barisan Nasional, were basically wiped out at this election. The BN coalition now consists almost exclusively of UMNO.

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