KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia's Parliament on Wednesday approved redrawn electoral boundaries despite protests that the ruling coalition was cheating to ensure victory in the upcoming general election.
Embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak introduced the new electoral maps, which were approved with 129 lawmakers voting for them and 80 against.
Scores of activists earlier protested outside Parliament, denouncing the new maps as gerrymandering that would widen inequality among constituencies and was based along racial lines to favor Najib's ruling coalition.
Activists say the changes mean that ruling party candidates will need fewer votes than opposition lawmakers to win elections.
Activists and opposition leaders marched from a nearby park but were blocked from entering Parliament by riot police.
"This is the biggest cheating to ever happen," said activist Maria Chin Abdullah, slamming the government for pushing through the changes despite ongoing legal challenges.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who now heads the opposition alliance, called Najib a "monster" and a "rogue." ''These coming elections will most certainly not be clean," he told the rally.
Najib told Parliament that the changes were proposed independently by the Election Commission based on geographical changes and denied there was political interference.
Support for Najib's National Front coalition has dwindled in the last two elections. In 2013, it lost the popular vote for the first time to the opposition. Najib has been dogged by a multibillion-dollar financial scandal and is under pressure to improve his coalition's performance.
Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at John Cabot University in Rome, said the new plan could affect at least a 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 in Parliament, said Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert.
"The government has adopted new practices of packing and cracking, stuffing seats and breaking up areas with support for the opposition," she said.
It is the sixth time electoral boundaries have been altered since independence from Britain in 1957, but the first that doesn't involve the creation of new seats despite a sharp increase in voters since the last changes in 2003.
Elections due by August but widely expected in the next few weeks will pit Najib against the opposition coalition led by Mahathir, who served for 21 years as prime minister before stepping down in 2003.
Mahathir made a high-profile comeback to politics two years ago in an effort to oust Najib, who has clung to power despite a corruption scandal that involved hundreds of millions of dollars passing through his bank accounts.
The U.S. and several other countries are investigating allegations of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering at the 1MDB state fund, which was set up and previously led by Najib to promote economic development, but accumulated billions in debt. The U.S. Justice Department says at least $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB by associates of Najib, and it is working to seize $1.7 billion taken from the fund to buy assets in the U.S., potentially its largest asset seizure ever.
Najib, who denies any wrongdoing, has fired critics in his government and muzzled the media since the scandal erupted three years ago.
On Monday, the government proposed a new law to outlaw fake news and punish offenders with a 10-year jail term, raising concerns of a crackdown on dissent and media freedom amid the 1MDB scandal.
Analysts say Najib is expected to win a third term due to infighting in the opposition, the unfavorable electoral boundary changes and strong support for the government among rural ethnic Malays.