KUALA LUMPUR, April 16 — Non-urban constituencies with relatively lower household income will be a key battleground for Malaysia’s forthcoming polls as support for Opposition parties tend to be “entrenched” in wealthier, urban constituencies, says a research report published today.
In his analysis of how median household income in Malaysia has changed since the last general elections in 2013, Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute senior fellow Cassey Lee found that voters in constituencies run by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition tend to have lower median income than those in constituencies run by the Opposition.
The widening median income gap between these two camps is likely to “further entrench urban support for non-BN parties”, but BN’s electoral arsenal — such as lavish cash payments unveiled in its manifesto and calling a weekday polling date — will “dilute” the “urban advantages” that non-BN parties currently enjoy, Dr Lee argues.
Wary of losing power, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration has gone out of its way to tilt the playing field in its favour ahead of what will likely be a hotly contested election on May 9 — from dishing out electoral goodies to temporarily disbanding the Opposition party led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and redrawing the electoral boundaries.
Using data from household income surveys published by Malaysia’s Department of Statistics, Dr Lee found that while all parliamentary constituencies saw an increase in median household income during the three years following Malaysia’s last elections in May 2013, the gap in median income between BN- and Opposition-run constituencies has widened by about 23 per cent (from RM 1,137 in 2014 to RM1,401 in 2016) over the same period.
Dr Lee noted that higher changes in household income have occurred mostly in non-BN constituencies.
For instance, Selangor’s Gombak district and Permatang Puah in Penang, both run by the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), saw median household incomes go up by 19 per cent and 14.7 per cent — absolute increases of RM1,263 and RM664, respectively — between 2014 and 2016.
In comparison, BN-run Sembrong district in Johor saw a hike of just 2.7 per cent, up from RM 3,832 to RM3,935 over the same period.
In Pekan district, Najib’s stronghold in Pahang state, median household incomes went up by about 13.6 per cent, from RM3,321 in 2014 to RM3,774 in 2016.
“(This) can be attributed to the fact that support for non-BN parties such as the Democratic Action Party and PKR has come mainly from urban voters,” he wrote.
Based on 2014 figures, Opposition-run constituencies have an average population density of about 1.8 million people per square kilometre, more than five times that of a BN-run constituency (330,000 persons per sq km).
Dr Lee also observed that constituencies that changed hands between the last two elections — from being BN to non-BN seats — tend to experience a larger increase in median income, compared to those that remain under the helm of the BN.
Higher growth in income in Opposition-run areas could further “entrench” the support of non-BN parties in these areas, Dr Lee argues.
However, he noted that BN’s recent electoral strategies could “dilute the effect of urban advantages” that Opposition parties currently enjoy.
“This lends support to the argument that the foci of the battle for votes in Malaysia’s 14th general election will be in non-urban constituencies with relatively low median incomes,” he wrote.
For instance, the new electoral map — passed in Parliament last month just hours after it was presented by Najib — will reduce the share of seats for more urban constituencies.
Opposition politicians have protested that the changes squeeze more voters in their camp, often in urban areas, into fewer districts, giving disproportionate weight to rural constituencies, which tend to back the BN.
Lavish payments disbursed via the 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M) scheme for low-income households is also likely to have an impact on constituencies with lower median income, Dr Lee argued.
As part of its election manifesto unveiled in early April, the BN pledged increments in BR1M payouts for several income brackets.
For instance, those with household incomes below RM3,000 will see payouts jump from RM900 to RM1,500, while households drawing incomes between RM3,001 and RM4,000 will see payouts go up from RM450 to RM600. Single adults above 21 years old will also receive a larger payout of RM2,000, up from RM 1,200.
A new category of payouts have also been launched from households drawing incomes between RM4,001 and RM5,000, which will each receive RM700.
Finally, a midweek polling day is also likely to suppress the turnout of voters from urban constituencies, as compared to the rural districts, said Dr Lee.
Some analysts have suggested that calling for the polls on May 9, a Wednesday, is yet another of BN’s tactics to discourage voters based in urban areas from going back to vote in their hometowns in rural areas. — TODAY