Return of the gerrymander

Disproportionate constituency sizes and race-based seats are main concerns in EC’s redelineation exercise.

THE strange creature is back in our midst and making the news again. No, it’s not Pikachu but the sneaky old gerrymander.

Both are fictional but unlike the cute Pokemon, this varmint raises the hackles whenever it appears.

Lop-sided seat sizes have emerged as the main bugbear in the latest redelineation exercise of the Election Commission (EC).

Political parties on both sides of the divide are upset with the proposed changes to the boundaries of 12 Parliamentary constituencies and 34 state seats in the peninsula.

In its notice issued on Sept 15, the EC also proposed 13 new state seats for Sabah, increasing the assembly from 61 to 73.

The complaint against the EC is that the redelineation allegedly reflects gerrymandering to benefit a certain ethnic group.

The commission, however, has denied this, saying that it was only executing its responsibilities under the Federal Constitution.

It said state governments, affected local authorities or groups of 100 or more registered voters of a constituency could still object to the proposed changes by Oct 14 and that the recommendations could only be passed by the Dewan Rakyat.

True, under the current rules, if there are no changes to the existing number of 222 seats, a simple majority would suffice to do this.

Increasing the number of seats would need amendments to the Constitution through a two-thirds majority, which the ruling Barisan Nasional no longer has.

But disproportionate constituencies have been a recurrent issue in our electoral system, abused under the need for balanced “weightage” of representation between rural and urban seats.

The Constitution originally limited the difference between the biggest and smallest constituencies to 15% but this safeguard was removed through two amendments.

If this is an exercise to carve out seats for political advantage for one ethnic group, as being claimed, how is it done?

To use the method in the United States, the original home of the gerrymander, it is usually done by “cracking” and “packing”.

Cracking is the splitting of voters into different seats to reduce their political influence while packing is isolating groups of voters into one constituency to minimise their influence in the bigger area of contention.

For those unfamiliar with how the term gerrymander came into use, let’s go 204 years back to 1812.

Elbridge Gerry, Governor of Massachusetts, is remembered for the process of manipulating the borders of congressional districts for political advantage, although the tactic had been used before in Pennsylvania and also in England.

After he signed a redistricting Bill, journalists of the Boston Gazette called the shape of one of the districts a “salamander” and combined Gerry’s name to it to create the term which has gained notoriety for political chea­ting.

But the cartoonist who drew the fictional beast obviously didn’t quite know what the lizard-like amphibian looked like as he sketched a winged creature more akin to a vulture or a dragon.

The bizarre shapes of voting districts – among them a camel, a broken-winged pterodactyl and bristly snakes – still remain in the US today as state legislatures redraw districts every 10 years to coincide with the national census.

It exists in many democracies too, those using the first-past-the-post system of elections as well as countries using proportional representation, albeit the former are more prone than the latter.

In Britain, for example, the latest changes to boundaries, which would affect the 2020 general election, would see the number of MPs in the House of Commons reduced from 650 to 600.

The governing Conservative Party is expected to benefit from the changes, with the opposition Labour Party likely to lose up to 30 seats.

This has been confirmed by election expert and Conservative peer Lord Robert Hayward, leading to allegations of gerrymandering.

Back in Malaysia, the re-delineation exercise has led to MCA and Gerakan expressing the same worries as parties in the opposition.

MCA president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said the proposed changes could lead to an unhealthy racial domination of some seats, adding that race-based constituencies would further damage racial harmony.

“If the re-delineation results in Malay voters grouped in one area and only Chinese in another, the cooperation we (Barisan) have will become meaningless. The exercise must reflect multi-racial representation,” he said.

Gerakan president Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong has also declared that the party does not agree with the changes, saying that it would lessen its chances to win seats in the next general election.

DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang denounced the changes as the worst gerrymandering of all five re-delineation exercises in Malaysian history.

He said while the average number of voters for a parliamentary constituency in the peninsula is 68,814, there are 13 seats with more than 100,000 voters, most currently held by the opposition.

The renamed seat of Damansara (previously Petaling Jaya Utara) would have 150,439 voters, almost 10 times more than Putrajaya’s 15,627.

The other 12 “super constituencies” are Bangi (146,168), Klang (141,275), Petaling Jaya (129,363), Subang (128,330), Gelang Patah (112,081), Kota Raja (121,126), Pasir Gudang (108,156), Kota Melaka (105,067), Kuala Terengganu (101,875), Sungai Petani (101,829), Tumpat (101,318) and Kapar (100,456).

The Barisan Nasional is scheduled to discuss the redelineation exercise on Friday while Umno would meet on the issue on Sept 30.

While some Umno leaders have rubbished the claims of gerrymandering as attempts to show that the government controlled the EC, Umno secretary-general Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said that all parties should be concerned.

“Some Malay-majority areas would have more Malays and Chinese-majority constituencies more Chinese.

“This is not healthy for a multi-racial society; it will push the country towards becoming a theocratic state,” he was quoted as saying.

Indeed so. The onus is on the EC to dispel such fears and renew Malaysians’ trust in the commission as a respected institution.

Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote by Hubert H. Humphrey: To err is human. To blame it on someone else is politics.

M Veera Pandiyan , columnist