AUGUST 10 — It’s likely around half the eligible voters for the six state elections won’t bother to show up on Saturday August 12, 2023 to vote.
Approve, do not approve, it does not matter. It’s due. The reasonable course of action is to work towards a better show at the next election. Disinterest does not develop overnight, and neither can it be overcome in less than 48 hours to polling.
The value of turnouts and how they act as scaffolds for mid-aged democracies is better understood with context and comparisons.
Somewhere between 60 and 80
Last November, in the general election, only 74 per cent voted. Which is a large drop from 2018, except factor 2022 was the first general with automatic registrations of all adults 18 years of age and above — minus the mentally unsound and incarcerated. Put plainly, 15.7 million voted in 2022 which is three million more than 2018.
In net terms, it was an up, not a down.
The state election before it informs better — Johor in March, 2022. This was the first inclusive election since Undi18 was passed in 2019. Turnout was below 55 per cent. But in absolute terms, a net 70,000 additional voters. Johor saw 1.33 million voters in 2018 as opposed to the higher 1.40 million in 2022. Not great, still not a disaster.
The six states this coming weekend may replicate it in percentage terms.
How do other countries fare, especially in differentiated elections?
In April 2022, 73.7 per cent turned up to vote for the French president. But only 47 per cent came out two months later in June to vote in France's national legislative assembly.
The French split of the executive and legislative, meant there was a more pronounced interest in what is seen as the premier count — the presidential race. For the other, legislative polls with lower stakes, numbers drop.
The German federal election in September 2021, had 76.6 per cent turnout to elect legislators. However, Germany’s Chancellor or prime minister is the country’s executive leader and legislators elect him as per the Westminster system, and not in a separate election, therefore the parliamentary elections supersede other elections, just like in Malaysia.
Predictably, the 2023 Berlin state election in February, despite being the capital region, only drew 62.9 per cent.
How do these matter to us, systems and their rankings notwithstanding?
There is a distinction between Malaysia and developed democracies.
It is highly improbable France turns into a theocracy or Germany unbundles over 100 states, provinces and principalities which forms the German Federal Republic over poor turnouts.
Middle aged democracies have to worry, even if not to the extent of fledgling nations like South Sudan, Eritrea or Kosovo.
Malaysia is on its way to maturity.
For nations less than a hundred years old, their institutions (parliament/courts) and freedoms usually are equally tentative. A look at Malaysia’s current news verifies this claim.
Voters may not be convinced with their institutions, legislators and political parties but when they show up to vote they exhibit their confidence in their democracy even if not as much in its actors.
Undi18 was a win for democracy but to stall thereafter and not seek further inroads is a folly. A direct inroad is to achieve sufficient even if not impressive turnout numbers. Below 60 per cent this weekend, then it borders insufficient.
2023: Feels like 2020 on repeat
The parties should be blamed most if it is a low turnout, in and around 50 per cent.
Where did it go wrong?
The tectonic shift which imploded Pakatan Harapan and birthed Perikatan Nasional and other spin offs continues to reverberate. As a result, the political space is tense and volatile.
The real shame, and this is where the parties have failed, no faction has provided clarity of value and intention in the eyes of voters.
Pakatan’s earnest “make it work” with Barisan Nasional (BN) — Umno only actually, MIC and MCA as paperweight at best — appears whacky and unstructured. PN screams from all rooftops about Malays under attack as a genuine campaign — fortunately sixty years of confusion over a national identity assists the supremacists.
Yet PN by its pledge to exclude half the country cannot get votes from the other half. Pakatan rides on its control of the treasury, handing out goodies as and when to stave off Boogieman PN.
Neither side offers bold or fresh ideas. They stick to their strengths and let the voters worry-think it out, which explains voter fatigue and new voter disconnect. Voters are severely underwhelmed as the turnout will prove.
'I don’t know, I don’t care'
The eight million odd people added to Malaysia’s electoral roll since 2022, the majority of them are indifferent. A substantial number annoyed they have been added without their consent — now they are forced to make up their minds on polling day, rather than use unregistered as an excuse.
Their argument, “Can you explain to me how I benefit when I vote?”
To them if the point cannot be relayed inside a meme or a two-minute video, it’s unimportant.
Except it's terribly important.
Earth is 4.6 billion years old, explaining it would require considerable effort. A short video sacrifices depth and probably invites criticism for missing parts. Rushed explanations of abstract constructs may end up misinforming rather than informing. Unlike evolution — the academic teaching of it — politics has real and immediate life consequences.
This is why the Maggi Mee explanations of politics and democracy found in TikTok inadvertently harm the consumers rather than inform them.
Civic education engagements require access and participation by all components. Observing the large number of Malaysians confused about what a vote encapsulates indicates the broad failure to empower our people.
Apathy is present in all societies. Only dictatorships have almost complete turnouts, like Syria in the 1990s, or Iraq under Saddam Hussein, they hit high 90 per cent range. Those bogus elections also show overwhelming support for their commander for life.
But there is a message when only half show up if compared to a healthy 75 per cent.
Saturday would establish a baseline from which democrats need to engage with voters.
Though this column expects spin rather than self-examinations. Seriously, if all political parties contesting cannot interest at least half the voters among them, they all risk their political relevance in the long run.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.