Lessons from Malacca polls: Election retrospective Part 1

Three months have passed since Umno/BN won handsomely in Malacca polls, securing two-thirds of the seats. It is looking towards achieving the same result in Johor next month, and nationally, as it puts destabilising pressure on the current underperforming government to call for an early general election.

The pandemic, emergence of new entrants, strains and reconfigurations in political alliances and loss of legitimacy and rise of anger towards all political parties have created a different political terrain, one in which there are few sweet contests. Voters are simultaneously choosing options with different degrees of bitterness – yet, in every taste, there is the hope for a bit of sweetness.

In the first of two retrospective pieces on recent campaigns, voting behaviour and elections, this piece looks back at the November Malacca polls.

It draws from an in-depth analysis of the results at the micro-level, eg, polling station and saluran (stream) levels, and extends the initial post-macro analysis where turnout, limited Umno gains among the Malay electorate, the traction of Perikatan Nasional (PN) and sound (self-) defeat of Pakatan Harapan was evident. A deeper look at voting behaviour and campaign offers further insights ahead.

Ethnic voting: Indian swing

One of the first things to understand is to look at who changed their vote. Interestingly, the community that changed their vote the most in Malacca was not the Malays, but Indian Malaysians, with a margin of 19 percent swing back to Umno/BN.

This was dispersed across the state, not only in the seats where component BN parties such as (post-Malacca strengthened) MIC contested.

Indians made up 6 percent of the electorate in Malacca, and similarly, comprise 7 percent of the electorate in Johor.

As attention myopically primarily focuses on the Malay and Chinese vote, an important story of the Malacca polls was an overlooked ethnic minority, who continues to have power in shaping results and outcomes.

In fact, the changes in voting support among the other communities were minimal; Umno/BN Malay support declined by 4 percent, winning by being the strongest standing rather than winning back meaningful support. Similarly, those Chinese that voted still retained support for Harapan, although it declined marginally (an estimated 2 percent).

Here is the first Malacca lesson: look at all groups in Malaysia in understanding voting behaviour, not just one or two. Malaysia is a country of many communities – all of which are shaping the future of the country and should not be ignored, by parties and analysis.

Disengagement crosses ethnic lines

Malacca’s result showed the importance of coming out to vote. The data shows that there were changes by ethnicity in turnout. Chinese turnout dropped the most, a 26 percent decline, followed by others at 21 percent, then Indians at 17 percent and Malays 14 percent.

Rather than look at differences, the big picture is even more telling: the scope of turnout decline across communities is high.

Malacca voters revealed what is well-known: Malaysians from all communities are disengaging from the political process due to the weaknesses of political parties and leaders to show that they deserve to be voted for.

This current low turnout situation advantages parties that spend during the campaign and oil their machinery: in Malacca, this was Umno and PN.

Lacklustre campaigns do not draw fatigued and fed-up voters to the polls. Political parties in Johor need to ratchet up their campaigns, to engage voters more meaningfully and respectfully.

Youth looking for ‘change’

Repeating a mantra of my work in recent years, I stress the need to understand voting and Malaysians through multiple lenses, particularly beyond ethnic labels. The generational lens on Malacca voting offers important insights, especially given the country is young, with a predominantly young electorate.

In Malacca, Harapan suffered a serious erosion of support among younger voters, losing half of the support of those under 30, nearly half of those in their 30s and 15 percent of those in their 40s. Most of these votes moved to PN, which doubled their support among these age cohorts. Clearly, the young are looking for new alternatives – neither Umno/BN nor Harapan.

Repeatedly, younger voters said during the campaign that they wanted neither Najib Abdul Razak, Dr Mahathir Mahathir nor Anwar Ibrahim.

They are looking toward new leaders, focused on problem-solving rather than politicking, not burdened by their past personal grievances but focused on the future, their – the young people’s and their country’s future.

The findings suggest that Pakatan’s defeat would have been even more serious if the Undi-18 and Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) voters had been included.

With these Undi-18/AVR voters part of the coming election and voters under 40 years old comprising 50 percent of the electorate in Johor, parties from the “old” coalitions/parties have their work cut out for themselves.

Here is a third lesson from Malacca: young people showed in their voting that they are willing to change their electoral allegiance – and will potentially do so again.

They cannot be taken for granted. They now have the electoral power to determine the direction of the power – if they come out to vote and use it.

This brings us to another point, that the youth did not participate less compared to other age cohorts.

The drop in turnout – largely the disappointment of Harapan’s core base and those concerned with Covid risks – was not concentrated among the youngest voters. In fact, those in their 20s voted at the same level as those above 60s.

It was those in their 30s, who were engaged with the hope of GE14 that most stayed home during Malacca polls, a drop of 24 percent in 2021 compared to 2018.

Parties should be careful in assuming it is young people who are least engaged. While there is clearly room for higher engagement, the disengagement crosses age cohorts and speaks to disappointment with all the different alternatives.

Here is an important lesson: do not underestimate the importance of young people and their involvement in politics. They used their power in Malacca by changing their vote/voting and have the potential to do so again.

Covid conditions matter

None of the parties has fully come to terms with how the pandemic is affecting the electorate, psychologically or economically.

The past three years have been one of disruption – political turnovers, unprecedented new leadership, intensive political infighting and, arguably, the most important considerable suffering on the part of the electorate, especially the most vulnerable.

It is thus not a surprise that the findings show significant changes across different socio-economic backgrounds. Umno/BN did not change its socio-economic class political base, winning almost the same share in 2021 it did in GE14. Umno/BN relies heavily on the poorest for its support.

Yet, many of those that changed their vote in GE14 toward Harapan moved to Bersatu/PAS. As was the case in Sabah in 2020, less economically-secure voters rewarded the Muhyiddin government/coalition for its social security programmes and punished Harapan for its austerity and cutbacks in these programmes during their government.

These voters are primarily concerned with their living conditions and survival. They reward those that are perceived to provide better protection.

Malacca’s results show that Covid-19 has heightened voter concerns with livelihoods and attention to social welfare, advantaging those parties with resources and those engaged in expanding social protection.

The data by class socio-economic background point to another important finding: Harapan’s lost support among the middle class and wealthier Malaysians as well.

Unlike Umno/BN, Harapan’s political base has eroded compared to both GE14 and GE13. The coalition faces an even harder test in Johor.

From overlooked minorities and the power of the youth, Malacca’s results show that both Harapan and Umno/BN face challenges.

Of these two coalitions, Harapan – by a significant margin – faces the most serious contraction of support if Malacca trends continue.


First published on malaysiakini.com