KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Monday likely gained ground ahead of national elections next year when the Court of Appeal ruled that the Election Commission can go ahead with a controversial redrawing of voting boundaries.
Critics have called out the government over what they describe as skewing the borders in Najib's favour in the redelineation process as he seeks to win a third term in an election that must be held by August.
The government denies the charge.
Opponents of the redrawing process say it does not address an imbalanced distribution of voters, instead shoving opposition-inclined voters into opposition-held seats to create super-constituencies and also reshaping constituencies to have more distinct ethnic majorities.
Electoral boundaries were last shifted nationwide in 2003, and even then the undefeated Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition was accused of manipulating the process. The commission is now seeking to redraw boundaries for more than 120 parliamentary seats, more than half of the 222 seats in total.
The Court of Appeal set aside a lower court's order barring the commission from the redrafting exercise amid a legal challenge by the government of the opposition-held state of Selangor over the constitutionality of the process.
"The Election Commission has until September 2018 to finish the whole process. There is no urgency," said Elizabeth Wong, an executive councillor with the Selangor state government, outside the court.
"Something is happening to ensure that the prime minister and BN have this list of delineated seats to help them win Selangor," Wong said in a recording heard by Reuters.
The prime minister's office denied Wong's charge, saying the exercise is "is entirely normal, free from political interference" and managed independently by the commission.
"The reality is that Malaysia's judiciary is free and fair. Decisions frequently go against the government, as is a matter of public record. The opposition only complain when decisions go against them," Tengku Sariffuddin, Najib's press secretary, said in an emailed statement.
Najib is under pressure to improve on BN's disastrous election outing in 2013, when it lost the popular vote.
While BN is widely expected to win its 14th straight polls, Najib's prospects are tempered by voters angered by rising living costs and an unprecedented challenge by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has joined hands with jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and now leads the opposition.
(Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; editing by Nick Macfie)