A slow cooking campaign

For those thinking voter engagement in Malaysia’s campaign is like the past, think again. Unlike earlier elections, there is a palpable lack of enthusiasm among voters and a reciprocal lack of meaningful engagement with voters by parties – at least so far.

Initially preoccupied internally, the party’s hustings have gotten off to a slow start, with much of the actual campaigning happening quietly on the ground, away from the more public (and less crowded) ceramah.

Yet as the ingredients for an election have fallen into place – with candidates now officially nominated and manifestos (finally) announced, the campaign is starting to cook – slowly.

In this fifth in my ‘On the Road’ series, I highlight reports from the road, drawing from conversations with candidates, party workers, and, most important of all, voters. It draws from fieldwork in now all thirteen states of Malaysia starting in Borneo, followed by trips across (and up and down) the Peninsular.

Here, I highlight observations of the main issues and dynamics at the beginning of the campaign.


Shiok and stealth

Both Umno/BN and Pakatan Harapan started the election period in inflated over-confident bubbles, mistakenly believing that the same number of those who have supported them in earlier polls would return. They soon realised that the ground was not as fertile as before, hardened further by self-inflicted wounds in candidate choice and a fatigued fed-up electorate.

Repeatedly campaign workers have described early engagement as ‘cold’ facing a more indifferent electorate. The imagined loyalty of the past is gone, as shiok candidates and parties received a shock that they have to actually work to win over support.

Of all the campaigns, so far, the Perikatan Nasional is the most well-oiled and prepared. Expensive candidate posters replicating the BN colours and ‘stability’ messaging feature prominently in almost all of the constituencies where they have even a slim chance of winning.

The now (very) resource-flush PN is going for broke (politically at least), surprising even voters on the ground who are adjusting to three major rather than two coalitions contesting.

Stealthy, PN is aiming to steal victories from other parties, adopting an overtly racialised campaign (with the implicit promise of an all-Malay government) and backing up its efforts with funds that appear to be the not-properly-accounted-for boon of its short tenure in office.

Despite serious questions about their funding and background of political defection in the 2020 Sheraton Move, PN is projecting itself as the ‘good’ Malay coalition, not Umno and not working with non-Malays who are included in Harapan.

It is feeding on feelings of displacement and division, often strategically placing candidates of different ethnic communities to split the vote through ethnic appeals. Casting itself as the new ‘Malay’ protector and embedded with feudal notions of patriarchy, it continues to envision the public as followers that can be easily swayed in its favour.


Umno’s bully pulpit

In contrast, Umno/BN – now clearly led by Najib Abdul Razak’s protégé Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – has projected itself as ‘in charge’; the theme is clear: We’re back!

Using gladiator tactics to remove warlords and openly casting former no-longer realistic prime minister candidate Ismail Sabri Yaakob as merely a poster boy, Zahid has shown he is the man! He announced the candidates and the (birthday-leave) manifesto will little regard or recognition of how much of a liability he is politically.

There is no acknowledgement of an impact of an effective public shaming of Ismail Sabri. Arguably, this ‘take no prisoner’ (to stay out of prison) is part of Zahid’s bullish show.

The premise of his approach lies in bringing back Umno’s base, as he – and perhaps he (and his team) alone – believe that he protected the party and in return, the party will protect him. It’s a high-stakes approach, one that rests not only on the party faithful coming out to vote but the return of traditional supporters (cronies) from the business community.

This assumption failed in 2018. So far, with Zahid’s lack of finesse, he has shown he is not even a Najib.


In search of Harapan 2.0

Anwar Ibrahim however remains Anwar, focusing on long-standing themes of reformasi, a message honed before nearly a third of the electorate was born.

The long-time opposition leader is trying to bring life to a coalition that appears tired, with candidates struggling to hold on to their seats, especially outside of the Klang Valley and Penang. The ground has sweetened somewhat for Harapan compared to Malacca and Johor polls, but it is (very) far from what it was in 2018.

Harapan faces a much more discerning electorate, as their supporters expect more beyond long-familiar rousing speeches. Its manifesto has not received much attention and the diverse messaging of the different parties has not allowed for more focused messaging. Voters are having difficulty discerning priorities from the political noise.

Malaysia’s more progressive voices have been more critical and divided among themselves, a pattern that is self-destructive as conservative forces remain more resource-rich and empowered. Still taking potshots at each other, there is little appreciation of how these divisions collectively weaken.

Ironically, while Harapan 2.0 shares the most ideologically common ground without Mahathir at its helm, there is hesitancy in articulating a clear concise common platform. Harapan continues to search for that spirit of the past. Many of its older supporters are returning, but the young still remain ambivalent.


Beyond the surface

Party identity and personality have dominated GE15’s campaign so far. This is especially the case in individual semi-urban and rural constituencies, where campaigns continue to revolve around candidates.

Now, more voters distrust all of the above, with the mantra ‘their all the same’ frequently mentioned.

With BN’s announcement yesterday, all of the coalitions have announced their manifestos – (unrealistic) promises galore on the eve of the coming global recession and without a clear plan to fund the host of programs. Analyses will follow, as some measures capture the imagination of what Malaysia might be and others appeal to vocal interests.

On the ground, most of these promises are viewed with scepticism, if considered at all. Support for the various programs is largely seen through a partisan lens.

Where the real campaign battle is happening is not the public rallies or around the public debate, but on social media (with some coalitions paying massively for advertisements to woo the young) and in personal face-to-face interactions. Some voters are waiting for funds to come down, and yet others are waiting for the wind – and inspiration – to stir.

A slow campaign is gaining momentum, it’s cooking, but the dishes on offer have yet to fully tempt many who are waiting for more.


First published on malaysiakini.com.