Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Najib Prospects Boosted by Boundary Changes Amid Early Poll Talk

  • Election Commission has undertaken first redraw since 2003
  • Opposition parties say process tilted in premier Najib’s favor

A planned redraw of Malaysia’s electoral map amid the prospect of an early election is leading some in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s coalition to suggest it could yet regain a long cherished two-thirds majority in parliament.

Opposition politicians are also speaking about the possibility the United Malays National Organisation-led Barisan Nasional coalition, in power since independence in 1957, could recoup the leverage in parliament it lost two elections ago. Achieving that would further cement Najib’s grip on his party and the leadership, and provide him with space to embark on more economic reforms.

"Two-thirds majority is the ultimate aim of Barisan Nasional in the coming general election after failing for two terms," said Dominic Lau Hoe Chai, a vice president of the Gerakan party, which is part of BN and whose members are mostly ethnic Chinese. "As long as the component parties are united and the opposition continues to split, then it’s possible."

Having weathered more than a year of international scandals over political funding, Najib is set on Friday to unveil an annual budget that some analysts predict could be a harbinger of polls in early 2017. He’s retained broad support among ethnic Malays at home.

Redraw Objections

For an already-fractured opposition, the biggest concern now is how new district boundaries might impact such a vote. Their parties are among those who filed more than 800 objections in the past month against the Election Commission’s proposed redraw, saying it will benefit UMNO.

Opposition lawmakers lodge their protest against electoral boundaries changes on Oct. 14.

Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

Just a year ago Najib was battling accusations -- which he has repeatedly denied -- that hundreds of millions of dollars put into his personal bank accounts before the last election came from a troubled state fund. Back then, the prospect of Najib being strong enough to consider a snap poll, let alone have a two-thirds majority in his sights, appeared doubtful.

Najib’s coalition is 16 seats shy now of that milestone, which would allow his alliance to amend the constitution unopposed.

The Election Commission’s redraw -- the first since 2003 -- has meant substantial changes in voter composition along ethnic lines in some districts, according to data compiled by the opposition Democratic Action Party. Even some BN component parties have expressed concern over the adjustments to some electorates.

"Najib is hoping for a big win in the next general election," said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. "I predict if the current boundaries are approved, BN will be heading for big victory."

Election Timing

The commission, which reports to the Prime Minister’s Department, has said there was no favoritism in its process. The minister for that department, Azalina Othman Said, said Tuesday that objections from within BN and some state governments showed the commission had not acted in a one-sided fashion.

Malaysians are due to head to the polls around the middle of 2018, but some senior UMNO officials told Bloomberg News last month a vote could come as soon as March. Najib has been quick to deny media reports that cited him as ruling out an early election.

There are reasons for Najib to go early, including an opposition that has struggled this year in by-elections and a state poll amid infighting and policy differences. Some BN parties are already naming candidates, even as opposition groups argue about whether to avoid running multiple contenders in the same seat.

Having tried to weaken Najib with attacks over the finances of state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd., at least one opposition politician is now advising his counterparts to focus on bread-and-butter issues for voters and opposing the boundary redraw.

"Don’t worry too much about 1MDB," Rafizi Ramli, vice president of the People’s Justice Party, told about 500 people at a forum this month. "We had fun making fun of Najib, but it’s not going to change much unless that translates into action on the ground.”

Ong Kian Ming, member of the Democratic Action Party, protest against electoral boundaries changes on Oct. 14.

Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

Should parliament approve the new boundaries it’s "not beyond the realms of possibility" that BN could get a two-thirds majority, said Tony Pua, a lawmaker with the DAP. Maria Chin Abdullah, chairwoman of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, told foreign media this month there is a "high possibility" that margin could be achieved if the redraw goes through.

Najib needs a strong win under his belt. Even as senior figures publicly pledge support, some still privately express concern he will become a liability amid an image dented by scandal and as consumer sentiment languishes below the level of optimism.

A divisional leader in a northern state, who asked not to be identified given the risk of retaliation, said UMNO’s chances in the election were less rosy than they appeared. "Two-thirds majority is not something that is achievable, it will have to be a simple majority,” he said. “You can change the electoral boundaries, but if you cannot change the minds of the people in and outside of UMNO, what is the point?"

The government will probably use the budget to ease voter worries amid a slowing economy. Najib may announce an increase in cash handouts -- now given to one in four citizens -- and unveil steps to provide more affordable housing.

"This is an important budget for the Malaysian market," said Gan Eng Peng, head of equity strategies and advisory at Affin Hwang Asset Management. "If the budget is overly people friendly and expansionary, the market will read it as the government laying the groundwork for an election.”

— With assistance by Chris Blake, and En Han Choong

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