Now everyone can vote: Youth electoral power

Almost every article highlights that it will be Malaysia’s youth that will determine the outcome of GE15.

No question, Gen Z voters will be important, especially given that over one-third of the seats in the coming general election are highly competitive (where a swing of 5 percent can change the result).

Studies repeatedly show that Malaysia’s youth engage politics differently, through social media, TikTok primarily, and with less in-depth political engagement and trust. The analysis goes on to note the unpredictability of the youth vote in both turning out to cast their ballot and who they support, the GE15 “wild card”.

With promises of more laptops and scholarships, political parties across the political spectrum are struggling with how to win their support, largely ignoring the systemic concerns of Malaysia’s new generation – a desire for greater social mobility and better representation.

My third piece in my “on the road to GE15” series looks at the electoral impact of youth drawing from a study of how the youth vote shaped the outcome in GE14 and presents scenarios of the potential electoral impact of youth in the coming polls.

The electoral impact of new voters has always been important in Malaysia, given its young demographic. Yet with Undi18 and automatic registration, the youth boost is even more impactful. The findings clearly show that youth have and will shape the outcome, especially if they come out to vote in high numbers.

A look back: Youth drive for change

We already have a sense of how youth are voting in elections. My earlier analysis of the March Johor 2022 polls laid out previous voting patterns, highlighting that turnout was low among those in their 20s and 30s, but higher among Undi18 voters on par with older voters.

It also showed a divided youth among the three major coalitions, with PN picking up youth support and Harapan losing support compared to GE14.

In short, the youth in Johor were as divided as the rest of Malaysians, yet they have weaker political affiliations and are more likely to swing their vote to another party. But, when they come together, they set the political direction for the country.

In a general election, younger voters – in this case, those under 30 years of age (apologies to others who are above this but still feel young) – were decisive. Without a youth shift in support, Umno would not have been defeated.

Here’s what was found regarding GE14:

Umno/BN won 11 seats due to youth support, notably in places such as Kelantan, Kedah, and Terengganu. Examples include Tanah MerahKeterehPadang TerapBesut, and Hulu Terengganu.

Harapan and its then ally Warisan won a whopping 72 seats from youth support – the overwhelming majority of their seats. Keep in mind that Harapan only won 113 of the total seats in 2018, with Warisan winning eight.

These youth-impacted seats stretch from Kangar in Perlis, Langkawi in Kedah, Bandar Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur to Kota BeludTawau, and Papar in Sabah, and Sibu and Miri in Sarawak.

GE14’s outcome was determined by Malaysia’s young, with the hopes and inspiration of the “Save Malaysia” campaign then led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

In effect, youth voters in their 20s were decisive in 37 percent of the seats in 2018, more than a third.


Younger electoral terrain

This time round, voters under 30 will be even more impactful. An estimated 17 percent of voters will have the opportunity to vote for the first time due to the coming of the voting age.

Undi18 voters from 18-20 years old are 5 percent of the electorate, with voters 24 years and under comprising another 12 percent.

The others who are new to the electoral roll are from automatic voter registration (AVR), which are especially high in places where registration efforts were weak, such as Sabah and Sarawak.

Of these AVR voters, an estimated 22 percent of them voted in Johor, which means that most of these voters are unlikely to participate in GE15.

This should not be a surprise as they did not register in the first place. They are, however, a reservoir to be tapped by parties for support.

In terms of the number of voters, the highest number of youth votes is in Selangor, but it is in specific constituencies where they have the most power, ironically in many of the smaller constituencies.

Younger voters make up at least a third of the total in 52 seats, or 23 percent of total seats. There are 19 seats where voters 29 or below comprise an estimated 35 percent of the electorate, nine of these are in Sabah.

To put this in context, young Malaysians by their numbers alone can determine the outcome of who is in government in how they vote and whether they vote. This is especially the case as GE15 remains highly competitive.

Impact scenarios

The number of voters alone is one lens to assess the youth vote. Another is to look at how they might impact actual races.

While we wait for candidates to be finalised, the formal campaign to start, and recognise the reality that Malaysia is now in a situation where post-election alliances will likely impact the forming of a government, previous patterns of voting (both in recent state elections and in prior general elections) and current conditions point to competitive seats and potential outcomes.

To show the power of the youth vote, I developed three hypothetical potential scenarios, drawing from recent voting trends.

Scenario 1 is based on a youth turnout of 60 percent, in line with the dynamics present in the Johor and Malacca state elections where voters, especially those in their 20s did not return home to vote.

If Harapan wins only a quarter of the support of these youth voters, it could only pick up 50 seats.

In Scenario 2, where youth support for Harapan potentially increases to 40 percent – on par with what Muda secured in Johor among Undi18 voters but less than what Harapan achieved in 2018 – Harapan and its potential allies could win 71 seats. This would mean an increased overall youth turnout of 66 percent.

Finally, in Scenario 3, the turnout of youth increases to 70 percent, but Harapan only wins a third of the support of youth (as they did in Johor), then they could only win 93 seats.

BN’s share of the seats, particularly with the heavily favoured GPS in Sarawak, an assumed BN ally, would be higher but would drop considerably as youth share shifts.

All scenarios should be treated with caution, as there are many unknowns. It is still before nomination day. What the main takeaway should be, however, is how significant youth are in shaping the GE15 outcome – in voting and who they vote for. Even relatively small swings in youth votes can determine who is in Putrajaya after November 19.

Beyond the seats mentioned above, where youth comprise large vote shares or have been impactful in earlier polls, there are 20 seats that I am particularly watching for youth impact this round, notably Alor Setar and Kulim Bandar Baharu in Kedah, Hang Tuah Jaya and Alor Gajah in Malacca and Tambun in Perak, where opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is contesting.

It is important to keep in mind that many of the youth today were born after the height of the Reformasi movement. They are a product of the current era of uncertainty, politically socialised in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic and amidst different patterns of political contestation since 2018.

GE15 is an election where there is more youth participation than ever before. More youth candidates are being slated across parties, a youth party – Muda – is fielding candidates, and some of the parties are regenerating their candidates.

To date, however, there has been considerable talk about youth by political parties, often platitudes that are seen with some scepticism by an electorate less trusting of politicians.

Youth are talked at or about, rather than in a genuine respectful conversation. All too often, youth are treated as secondary. Come election day, in less than three weeks, they will be primary in determining Malaysia’s next government.


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