Will young voters show up again for another ‘Green Wave’?

SITI (not her real name) voted for the first time last year in the 15th General Election (GE15) which recorded a high turnout rate for her age group.

Buoyed by the excitement surrounding the election, which marked the first time 18-year-olds and previously unregistered voters could vote, she eagerly went with her adoptive family to cast her vote.

Siti, 25, who lives in Selangor, is not feeling the same excitement this time around, unsure whether she will go to the polling centre.

“It depends on if I have the time,” she told Bernama, saying her recent employment at a restaurant usually leaves her feeling tired the next morning.

Youth voters have never been considered reliable voters in other democracies but the voter turnout for Malaysians aged between 18 and 30 in GE15 was a surprising and robust 75.6%, according to an analysis by political expert Bridget Welsh. It almost matched the turnout among the 41- to 50-year-old group.

During GE15, there was much excitement surrounding the youth vote. Political events and social media platforms, especially TikTok, targeted them, while many news reports and analyses called the youth voters “possible kingmakers”.

However, for tomorrow’s state elections to determine the next governments of Selangor, Negri Sembilan, Penang, Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan, the enthusiasm is more muted. That coupled with traditionally lower turnout rates for state elections – usually 10 to 20 percentage points less – makes some experts think youth turnout will be much lower than hoped.

Bernama talked to experts who agreed youth turnout will be lower than GE15’s but they were unsure how low it will be. A few think it will be similar to the under-30 turnout rate for the Johor state election in 2022, which was at around 52%, while some think it will be worse.

Available data seem to support the prediction. Tindak Malaysia director Danesh Prakash Chacko said data from previous elections showed areas with sizeable numbers of young voters always had lower turnout rates than areas with few young voters.

“The adults are more excited to vote,” he said.

There are other signs to indicate low turnouts at tomorrow’s state polls. Experts cite a lack of excitement and chatter online about the state elections compared to GE15.

“I think what was pushing the youth to vote then is that… I think the whole experience around GE15 was something exciting. It was a new experience and a repetition of that (turnout) would be interesting,” said Jason Wee from Architects of Diversity, a youth group.

The same factors are no longer applicable while other factors such as scheduling conflicts, work obligations, polling day not being a public holiday and travel issues are present. Election fatigue – tomorrow’s polls constitute the sixth in three years – was another.

‘Alarmingly’ low turnout

As such, Wee is predicting the turnout will likely be slightly higher than the Johor state election’s in 2022 when COVID-19 restrictions were still mostly in place.

He told Bernama volunteers have been monitoring chatter on social media regarding the state elections and said they have not seen as much chatter or engagement compared to GE15.

“The only observation on TikTok that is really standing out is a huge rally around Kedah caretaker menteri besar Datuk Seri Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor. The martyrdom surrounding his arrest has been playing really, really well among youth on TikTok. Whether it translates into votes is a different question,” he said.

Most other experts concur, expecting the youth voter turnout in Kedah to be good.

Political scientist Wong Chin Huat is predicting an “alarmingly low” turnout, particularly among the youth. He said the turnout may match the turnout for the Johor state election last year.

Like Wee, Wong said he has not seen the same level of enthusiasm among voters so far.

“This is evident from the low attendance at ceramah (talk), many people not making preparations to go out to vote, and so on,” he said.

Geostrategist Dr Azmi Hassan went against the grain in the low turnout predictions. Although he agreed the youth vote will go down, he said the overall turnout will only dip slightly.

“The interest is there. Also, there is fear of the ‘Green Wave’,” he said. The “Green Wave” is a term that is used to describe Perikatan Nasional’s (PN) surprise gains at the last general election.

There are many complications that come with these state elections, which is making predictions difficult. For one thing, the Undi18 crowd has only had one federal election and one state election so far, making it hard to detect trends.

In last year’s Johor election, the youth chose Barisan Nasional (BN). But during GE15, youth voters, especially Malays, gave the edge to PN-PAS. According to a Merdeka Center survey on voting preference prior to GE15, 37% of youth preferred PN, followed by Pakatan Harapan (PH) at 35% and 23% for BN.

Analyses of voting trends show the elderly to be more likely to vote for BN and the middle-aged for PH. Therefore, it may stand to reason that a high youth voter turnout will help cause another Green Wave.

However, the experts told Bernama whether youth turnout is high or not, the outcome is not necessarily set in stone. Although some, like Danesh, believe most youth votes will skew towards PN, Wee and Azmi believe the youth vote is still undetermined.

“Later studies have shown that youth voters are largely undecided and can change,” Wee added.

Azmi, who is also a senior fellow at Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research, stated that the youth are still figuring out what is important for them and which party or candidate best represents them. He added young voters were also not afraid to experiment.

“There is a possibility that PN was new (compared to BN and PH). I think they wanted to try something new so they decided to try PN-PAS,” he said.

However, taking the youth vote out of the equation does not necessarily mean no more “Green Wave”.

It is uncharted territory for other voters who have to contend with former bitter rivals PH and BN squaring off against former allies PN and PAS.

Anwar Ibrahim (Photo credit: PMO)

Universiti Sains Malaysia senior lecturer Zaireeni Azmi said some non-Malays who were reliable PH voters may have been disillusioned by the PH-BN pact. She said it is possible they may decide to punish the unity government by not showing up or spoiling their votes.

“They thought PH was going to do something different about rooting out corruption. One of the main reasons they voted for PH was because of (alleged corruption in) UMNO and then BN became part of the coalition (unity government),” she said.

On the flip side, BN voters, mostly the elderly and Malay, may not want to vote for PH and instead switch to PN. Danesh cited the Padang Serai by-election after GE15 as proof.

“PH was okay about voting for (the) BN (candidate) but it was not reciprocated in Padang Serai, which is one of the reasons I believe why Padang Serai fell to PN,” he said.

State elections always attract fewer voters than general elections – with fewer voters turning out to vote in urban areas than rural areas – as many believe they are not as important as federal elections. According to the experts, nothing could be further from the truth.

They called for better education for voters, which the Election Commission, political parties or electoral watchdogs can provide. They said voters need to understand how the democratic system in Malaysia works, the difference between state and federal governments and the impact of voting.

“That’s the main concern we are seeing at the moment, especially online engagement and youth engagement, that the level of comprehension is really still at, ‘Why are we having state elections’ rather than ‘Who is contesting in your constituency’,” noted Wee.

Legitimacy questions

Zaireeni pointed out that the misunderstanding of the political system in Malaysia would breed voter apathy if not addressed.

She said voters are having difficulty adjusting to the fact that the current political reality in Malaysia has changed with BN no longer being dominant.

Voters also need to understand that without a dominant party, a Westminster parliamentary system requires compromise and coalition-building.

“They just want to see black and white. It used to be binary. It was either BN or the opposition.”

Wong said voter turnout across all demographics is important for a healthy democracy and to ensure their interests are heard.

Winning with the support of a minority of voters makes it harder to govern well as it raises legitimacy questions.

“Politicians may look at (low voter turnout) in two ways. One: ‘This is an important constituency. I believe there’s a lot of potential for us to go in there to get their support.’

“But it could also be the other way round: ‘These people don’t care about their rights so we don’t have to worry about them punishing us if we don’t do what they want’,” he said.

Wong added it is especially important to vote in a state election because it will determine what one’s day-to-day life is going to be like.

He said local authorities are responsible for things like zoning and licensing of businesses, protection of the environment and solid waste management services and since “we don’t have local government elections when you vote for your (next) state government, you are voting for your local council (as well)”. – Aug 11, 2023


Main photo credit: The Star

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