Malaysian lawmakers voted to redraw the electoral map in what critics decried as a move to rig an upcoming election, sparking angry protests outside parliament and fury from the opposition within.
The vote is expected within weeks and Prime Minister Najib Razak is battling to keep his long-ruling coalition in power, despite allegations that billions of dollars were looted from a sovereign wealth fund he founded.
Najib is also facing a tough challenge from an opposition headed by veteran former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 92, who is seeking to win over the government’s traditional support base of rural Muslim voters.
Najib told parliament the changes were necessary because of significant demographic changes in the country of 32 million people since the last boundary alteration in 2003.
After a heated debate in parliament, which is dominated by Najib’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favour of the bill to redraw constituency boundaries – despite concerns it will unfairly tilt the election in Najib’s favour.
Opposition lawmakers got to their feet and jeered at the ruling coalition MPs.
Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, deputy leader of the opposition coalition Pact of Hope and wife of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, told AFP news agency the electoral overhaul was “scandalous”.
“We believe an election victory may be stolen from us,” she said.
The opposition and critics say the proposed electoral boundaries would benefit BN by stuffing a large number of opposition-leaning voters into fewer seats and dividing constituencies along racial lines.
The changes must now be given royal assent, but that is expected to happen quickly.
Lawmaker Liang Teck Meng, whose party is a member of the ruling coalition, told parliament the opposition opposed the changes as “they know they will not get the mandate of the people to rule the country”.
Hundreds of protesters marched to parliament as the bill was tabled, waving banners that read “stealing an election is not winning an election”, and were joined by Mahathir who denounced the changes as “kleptocracy”.
”These coming elections will most certainly not be clean,” he told the rally.
Activists and opposition leaders were blocked from entering parliament by riot police. “This is the biggest cheating to ever happen,” said activist Maria Chin Abdullah.
Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at John Cabot University in Rome, said the move to redraw electoral lines could affect at least one-third of the 222 parliamentary seats and six of the 13 state assemblies.
It could potentially help Najib’s coalition, which now holds 132 parliamentary seats, win back a two-thirds majority, said Welsh.
A controversy over state fund 1MDB has dogged Najib’s administration, with the US Justice Department alleging $4.5bn was stolen in a campaign of fraud and money-laundering.
Najib and 1MDB have denied any wrongdoing.