KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia approved on Wednesday plans to redraw boundaries for more than a third of its parliamentary seats, changes that critics say will help Prime Minister Najib Razak cruise to a victory in a general election likely to be called within days.
Hundreds of protesters marched to parliament ahead of the tabling of the redelineation motion and opposition lawmakers raised their objections in the House of Representatives - with one member calling Najib a “thief”.
But the motion, which will change the voter demographic in nearly 40 percent of parliament’s 222 seats, was approved by a simple majority within five hours of the tabling by Najib.
Opposition lawmakers chanted “cheat, cheat” as the motion was passed.
Critics say the new boundaries will benefit Najib’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which is facing arguably its toughest polls since independence more than 60 years ago, by assigning larger number of opposition-leaning voters to fewer seats and dividing constituencies along ethnic lines.
“Today, parliament was asked to pass a motion to save Najib and the ruling government,” said Lim Kit Siang, veteran leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party.
Lim had earlier denounced Najib as a “thief” and was asked to leave the house by the speaker for disrupting proceedings.
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.
His coalition lost the popular vote in the last general election, in 2013, but managed to stay in power.
An election must be held by August, but Najib is widely expected to call it in days.
The recommendation to modify electoral boundaries was made in a report by the Election Commision (EC), which has for years been accused by the opposition of taking instructions from the prime minister.
The EC and the government have both said the recommendation for change in electoral borders was 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 parliament.
Maria Chin Abdullah, former chairwoman of pro-democracy group Bersih, and one of about 200 protesters who had marched earlier in the day, said the commission’s report was being used to unfairly force through the boundary changes.
“They want to bulldoze the report that contradicts the constitution, ignores the rule of law and manipulates the electoral rolls,” she said.
Former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who at 92 is the opposition candidate for prime minister, should Najib, his former protégé, be defeated, briefly joined the protesters.
Electoral boundaries were last changed in 2003, under the leadership of then-premier Mahathir. He, too, was accused of manipulating the process in favour of the ruling coalition, which has held power since independence from Britain in 1957.
The latest changes will not alter the number of seats in the parliament or state assemblies, 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 state, 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 mean some pro-opposition constituencies with grow to include more than 100,000 voters, while pro-government ones are much smaller.
For instance, in Selangor outside Kuala Lumpur, the biggest parliamentary constituency would be Damansara - held by the opposition - with 150,439 voters, while the smallest would be Sabak Bernam - held by BN - with 37,126 voters.
Earlier in the week, the government tabled a bill seeking to outlaw “fake news”, with fines and up to 10 years in jail, raising more concern about media freedom in the wake of the 1MDB scandal.
The bill is expected to be passed on Thursday.
Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; writing by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Robert Birsel