Malacca: Covid forcing voter ‘flight to security’?

Almost overnight, Malacca has come alive as weak parties and even weaker coalitions are making their final push in close races.

The state remains highly competitive, with now 43 percent (12) of the seats too close to call and only 21 percent (6) of the seats secure for the parties contesting.

Every vote will count and, in this regard, whether outstation voters return to vote and Covid-worried voters come out will determine the outcome.

The political terrain has shifted in the past few days. A critical change involves a flush of funds into the state. While it has not rained in a few days, it is raining ringgit – lots of ringgit.

There are also more people on the roads with non-Malacca cars, signalling some are coming home to vote.

The awakened campaigns are making their final appeals, with walkabouts and press conferences.

A last-minute emotive campaign issue of an immoral ‘gift’ of land and house to convicted felon former prime minister Najib Razak is now reverberating on the ground, provoking phone calls to bring people home to vote and stoking anger.

There is finally a sense that an election will be held tomorrow.

Rethinking analytical framing

What will determine the outcome in these close races? Let me share some thoughts. In this fourth piece on the polls, I lay out a few of the strategic factors that could influence tomorrow’s outcome.

On the eve of the poll, the Malacca campaign already suggests that Malaysia’s political terrain and its electorate’s voting behaviour are changing, especially among the politically potent younger voters.

In analysing this election, my starting point was to look at traditional partisan levels of support as proxies of strength of party machinery.

The assumption was that traditional party loyalties would hold sway in voting, affected by turnout levels among traditional party supporters. Candidate appeals would only hold sway to a certain degree, despite the local nature of the races.

Of course, there would be more impact among some candidates compared to others.

As is often the case, there is much more going on. As per usual, analytical frameworks need to be re-thought based on analyses on the ground.

From the onset, I recognised that Covid would shape voting and that the contestation between Perikatan Nasional (PN) and Umno/BN, creating multi-cornered contests and dividing the Malay ground, would matter.

The questions were how and by how much. My research on Malaysia’s first Covid election, the Sabah 2020 polls, detailed below, offered insights. Yet there are unique dimensions in Malacca, a traditional Umno-dominant state.

Playing of the race card – divisive appeals

A partisan strength-only analysis suggests PN has no chance of victory. Yet, this view may have been premature for a variety of reasons. PN is becoming a spoiler, most impactful for Umno, their rival.

First, PN has adopted arguably the most strategic positioning of candidate placement. Many of their candidates are young and local. Many are seen as clean, professionals, and are new faces.

The coalition has also backed the first woman as a chief minister candidate, the competent Mas Ermieyati Samsudin. This is an open appeal to women, an ironic one given how many were displaced and disempowered during their tenure in the federal government.

Yet, they also have adopted a logic that is based on race, with the aim of splitting the vote along ethnic lines. In multiple seats – Gadek, Bemban, Duyong, and Asahan – the PN coalition has fielded candidates that differ ethnically from the other main coalitions.

On the ground, they are making appeals based on race, backed up with their resource-rich campaign.

In Gadek and Bemban, for example, they are hoping their Malay candidate will win as the non-Malay vote splits. This racialised campaigning has also extended to persistent criticism of working with DAP among the Malay electorate.

This logic rests on an assumption of race-based voting, which remains an important (although not only) determinant of voting.

PN has also broadened its appeal, recognising other dimensions of the electorate. In this regard, it is especially reaching out to young voters. Here, Sabah offers insights, as appeals to the young were made on the grounds of a need for a ‘change.’

Bersatu has painted themselves as the ‘new kid on the block,’ the non-Umno, not working with the demonised DAP and allied to Islamist PAS. They are stating they are anti-Najib and are pushing for new leadership in the Malay community.

Whether this campaign messaging is accurate is not an issue, it is a matter of whether it is accepted and believed.

It is important to appreciate that young voters are looking to the future, not the past – to new opportunities and new players. PN aims to capitalise on the desire for change, hoping to undercut both Umno/BN and Harapan.

Financial insecurity – survival politics

In this last stage of the campaign, parties are also allocating resources strategically. Resources across parties are now flowing, with those with access to federal and state resources and established party coffers having the advantage.

In some cases, the entire state government machinery is supporting individual candidates. PAS, for example, is eyeing at least two seats and is seen to have a fighting chance in one, Serkam. The level of green party machinery on hand is significant.

For some, the Malacca election is about their party and coalition’s political survival. This is especially the case for Bersatu, which is comparatively resource-poor, Amanah, and, importantly, Umno – which hopes this election will return them to the dominant position of power.

In this time of Covid, financial conditions are tough. Without the excitement of a campaign and in a time of need, self-preservation predominates among many voters.

Some voters are understandably asking themselves what can the election provide for their families, especially when campaigns have not differentiated themselves from each other. Survival is not just about the political parties; it influences the considerations of voters themselves.

The analytical term of seeking economic security is known as a ‘flight to safety,’ returning to a place of economic security. Here, Malacca voters are returning and going to where there might be the most security.

In Sabah, the financial rewards came through government resources, the Prihatin assistance programmes. This election, parties are reportedly providing funds directly as well as claiming credit for government assistance initiatives.

Covid-safe polls – inadequate reassurances

If Covid conditions have accentuated the need and saliency of money politics for voters, it is also shaping turnout.

Sabah turnout dropped considerably among Chinese and young voters. Overall Malacca voters have been careful during the campaign, wearing masks and avoiding public places.

The health concerns about voting remain significant, notably among Chinese voters and women. Turnout is not just a matter of outstation voters returning, but also whether local voters will go to the polls.

That the Election Commission (EC) has not taken measures to assure that voting is safe, to create special lines for senior citizens and disabled, and to test all of those in the polling stations, speaks to growing concerns about the administration of the polls.

Questions are being asked whether the EC is working to dissuade voters from turning out by not providing adequate reassurances for voters. Clearly, more can be done to make voting safe and to assure that voting is indeed safe.

Covid realities and uncertainties are very much part of the Malacca election. Interestingly it is PN, and to a lesser extent Umno/BN, that is trying to make the most of them.

The effects are the emergence of new voting practices and considerations for voters – assuring that the contest tomorrow will indeed be one to learn from and point Malaysia along different political trajectories.


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