Malaysia on the ballot

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Malaysians are preparing to vote in what could be decisive elections to get the country back on track. But instability is just around the corner

Everything is set for the vote on 19 November, when over 21 million Malaysians will be able to choose their representatives. This will be the 15th general election in the history of the former British colony and perhaps one of the most turbulent in recent years. Certainly, analysts say, the one with the most difficult results to predict. Because in Malaysian politics everything seemed to be going smoothly, until 2018. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the majority party, dominated the political scene with very few changes in leadership while the long-standing issues of inter-ethnic representation remained unresolved (only 50 per cent of citizens are Malays, with the remainder made up of Sinodescendants, Indians and other groups - some of which are considered indigenous). Then came the financial scandals (the most egregious was the one related to the state fund 1MDB) and government crises.

The new political landscape

After almost sixty years of stability, Malaysia has seen three governments change within four years, and two prime ministers in less than 20 months. The Pandora's box of Malaysian politics opened wide in 2020, when a number of leading politicians switched coalitions, causing the majority to collapse. The instability continued with new local elections called in the states of Malacca, Sarawak and Johor, while in October the fall of the government was announced and general elections were called. Thirty parties competed in this round, more than half of them merged into four of the existing coalitions. For the first time, the distribution of preferences could come out of the coalition that brings together some historic majority parties (Barisan Nasional, BN) against the opposition that had won the 2018 elections (Pakatan Harapan, PH).

The 2022 elections will be significant for the new political environment that is forming in the country. The crisis has exposed the limitations of the Malaysian electoral system, ranging from the weight of its 222 constituencies to gender parity. Constituencies, for example, have changed over time for various reasons, such as favouring the ethnic majority or maintaining the status quo. The changes that occurred at the dawn of the 2018 elections then redefined the boundaries in the name of 'representation on a local basis' and redistributing the number of registered voters into numerically similar groups. Where gerrymandering - the practice of redrawing the distribution of seats to gain political advantage - does not arrive, accusations of electoral fraud remain: it happens that people with the same personal data are registered on different lists, or names of deceased and non-citizens appear.

Mindful of what has happened over the past five years, MPs passed a law against 'party-hopping', which came into force on 5 October. The legislation prohibits politicians from changing parties once they have been elected by the citizens - an attempt to prevent a repeat of a government crisis premeditated by factions intent on dismantling the majority.

The voting factors

In this context, there is a momentous innovation: the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18. With this manoeuvre, which took effect at the end of 2021, some 6.2 million new voters were added. With this manoeuvre the under-40s became the most important voting bloc, the one that will determine the course of the elections. An element that has not gone unnoticed by the parties, who have tried to introduce younger figures and have made big promises on the issues of work and economic stability. All this amidst attempts at communication straddling traditional rallies and the use of social platforms (especially Facebook and TikTok).

Nevertheless, 'there is a lot of uncertainty,' William Case, professor of history and international relations at Nottingham University in Kuala Lumpur, told The Guardian. 'This massive influx of young people will increase the size of the electorate but will not significantly change the results'. The low expectations of younger people seem consistent with what is perceived as a more general disillusionment of Malaysian citizens with politics. "[...] In the absence of good and sustainable policies for all the problems we collectively face, it will be my generation that will face the consequences of inaction and identity politics. However, I am not sure that these issues are priorities for the people I am supposed to vote for,' comments 20-year-old Rifqi Faisal.

Justifying this narrative is the idea that UMNO's impregnable position at the top of the government has always made elections a de facto empty exercise of the right to vote. Nevertheless, since the thirteenth general election (conventionally General Elections 13, GE13), turnout has increased significantly, reaching 82.32% in 2018. But the low election turnout in Johor (54%), for example, is dampening expectations.

No less important - to the extent that they have often polarised and monopolised public opinion - are ethnic and religious issues. A survey of Sinodescendants shows a strong focus on the candidates, with 9 out of 10 advocating voting for the coalition closest to the ideal of a multi-ethnic Malaysia.

The issues

The mismatch between politics and citizenship is not just a perception of young voters. Even politicians this year have to deal with a plethora of issues to prioritise. For several years, the theme of corruption seemed to permeate the political discourse, with the different parties ready to accuse each other of real or alleged involvement in the financial scandals that have emerged in recent years (such as the aforementioned 1MDB one). But even this narrative seems to be faltering, as reported by the news site SAYS citing Malaysia's progress in the Corruption Perception Index: the fact that the latest scandals have emerged, and the alleged culprits identified and sanctioned, would have reduced the presence of this issue in public opinion.

Most analysts seem to converge on a macro-issue common to countries in the region at this time: the economy. The rising cost of living, real estate prices, and the strengthening of welfare are just some of the problems that are emerging in post-pandemic Malaysia. Young Malaysians also have to contend with a labour market that is less and less aligned to their skills and where wages are no longer sustainable. 

However, the economic data for 2022, as Bloomberg points out, appear almost contradictory: Malaysia's GDP growth was among the strongest in the region (+14.2% in Q3). Unemployment rates also seem to have returned to pre-pandemic levels, but with interesting differences between ethnic groups (there are more unemployed among Malaysians, 4.2%, than among Sinhalese, 2.7%) and states (in Sabah, in the north, the unemployment rate is 8.2%, while in neighbouring Sarawak it is 3%). Inflation has doubled since the beginning of 2022, while during the summer there was a record spike in fuel and food prices. One of the many factors driving this trend was a drop in the ringgit exchange rate, which favoured exports but raised import costs. Still to be seen are the results of the outgoing government's latest manoeuvre, which in June was to allocate at least USD 17 billion to an aid plan for citizens and businesses - a record figure in the country's history.

The climate factor

The resignation of the government in October raised a number of controversies, first and foremost the climate issue. Deciding to hold elections in the autumn in Malaysia means dealing with the monsoon season, a phenomenon that is becoming less and less controllable due to climate change. Many rallies have been cancelled due to heavy rain and gusts of wind, while there are fears of a drop in voter turnout caused by flooding. To deal with the problem, a network of civil society associations, Undibanjir (from undi, vote, and banjir, floods) has been set up with the aim of organising rescue teams and facilitating the relocation of voters to their constituencies.

On the climate issue, young Malaysians also seem more attentive than past generations. Ninety-two per cent of them say climate change is a crisis that concerns them closely, according to the results of the National Youth Climate Change Survey by UNICEF and UNDP. Climate change has also entered the political debate in this election, and could draw a percentage of the vote towards the names that are more outspoken in favour of the environmental cause, as an in-depth report by Malaymail points out.

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