Malaysia state elections: Young voters divided between development and ethnic nationalism? - Hindustan Times
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Malaysia state elections: Young voters divided between development and ethnic nationalism?

ByHindustan Times
Jul 29, 2023 02:15 PM IST

This article is authored by Mehdi Hussain, doctoral candidate, Centre for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Recently Malaysia managed to establish electoral stability after years of infightings among political parties. The state elections of six states will be held on 12th August after the completion of the five-year term in June. Till November last year, people had seen political uncertainties at the national level. It is likely for the young voters to vote on ethnic lines in the state elections. But they will also focus on the performance of the Anwar Administration formed less than a year ago.

Malaysian vote
Malaysian vote

The popularity chart for the newly formed government indicates a favourable picture of a stable government in the multicultural nation. In the Merdeka Center’s survey taken right after the 15th general election (GE15), the national approval rating for the Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim stands at 68% and his government’s performance receives the satisfaction of 54% of voters polled. It may become a factor in the young voters’ mind to vote for issues that concern development.

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The debate whether the upcoming state elections will be swayed by ethnic nationalism or developmental concerns is taking its course in the run-up to the elections. The Merdeka Center’s survey highlights the top four important issues that constitute the concerns of the respondents including inflation, economic progress, corruption, and political instability. Interestingly, young voters of the age group of 18-20 and 21-30 are very satisfied with PM Anwar with satisfaction rate of 80% and 68% of respective age groups. According to the survey, ethnicity-wise Malay, Chinese, Indian, MB and non-MB are happy with the PM. The most important five issues that the respondents want Anwar to focus on are job creation, the wage gap, bringing back FDI, enhanced anti-corruption efforts, and education reforms.

Nikkei Asia reports that the upcoming state elections will focus on the progressive issues of job security, economic conditions, and rising inflation. In this direction, the Anwar administration has already taken positive initiatives—transparency in procurement contracts, check inflation, introducing austerity measures such as the removal of complete subsidies on petrol or electricity tariffs, and attention to low and middle-income households.

However, his government at the same time has to face the issue of the ethno-religious politics of Malay in the upcoming elections. Ethnic nationalism often coincides with the Islamic identity of the Malays. It becomes significant in Malaysia’s demographic composition which has a Malay majority with Bumiputera (69.9 percent), Chinese (22.8%), Indian (6.6%) and others (0.7%). At the national-level, youth composition is about one-third of voters (i.e., 6 million out of 21 million) falling under 30 in the run-up to the GE15, Nikkei Asia reported. Thus, the youths have a big role in deciding the outcomes of electoral politics in Malaysia.

The coalition of opposition parties at the federal parliament, Perikatan Nasional (PN)—which is running the states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah—promotes it to gain politically. Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS)’s, which is in the PN coalition, has been successful in invoking the Malay-Muslim identity. Their political influence is not insignificant in Malaysian politics given their results in the recent elections. In the GE15, surprisingly Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar was defeated by a PAS candidate in the former’s stronghold in Penang state. Penang, Selangor, and Negeri Sembilan are the other three states which will have state elections, and they are under the control of Anwar’s PH party. PAS won all the parliamentary seats in Terengganu and Kelantan.

The upcoming elections are also about whether ideas of democratic multiculturalism and ethnic nationalism can coexist in Malaysian society. Anwar’s coalition “Unity Government” represents multiculturalism, and it has multi-ethnic composition. But it has vulnerabilities in terms of the fear of a break-up of the coalition, which was constituted in the wake of a hung parliament in the GE15. He is also criticised over the coalition partner Barisan Nasional (BN) and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which also professes ethnic politics. The ethnic politics of BN promoting Malay ethnic nationalism often comes into conflict with the PH’s belief of racial equal treatment.

PAS’s electoral strategy of reaching out to young voters through social media such as TikTok by roping in social media influencers has brought a huge success. Its attempts are to draw the recently added young voters into the electoral list with the recent decision to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18 years. Muhuiddin Yassin of the PN also used TikTok platform and connected with the youth for the general election in 2022.

There are over 1,17,000 followers of the TikTok account of the youth wing of PAS, South China Morning Post reported. The party has funded another account called Benda Betul with 1,34,000 followers getting information from these accounts. Social media contributed to the party’s winning of 49 seats (out of the PN coalition’s total seats of 74) in the last general election. It is also argued that the rise of conservatism among the Malays is more of identity than actual practise.

Commentators are arguing that the state elections will test PM Anwar’s popularity in the states ruled by the opposition party. Although state and federal elections are quite different his loss will send a negative message of losing faith in his secular ideas and question his ability to run a stable coalition government. In a paper on Fulcrum, it is also projected that the PN will likely retain its seats in Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu, while PH-BN will come back in Penang, Selangor, and Negeri Sembilan based on the results of GE15 and the performance of Anwar so far. In another paper, it is argued that voters in Malaysia vote along the lines of ethnicity with “more than 80% of non-Malay voters supporting PH and almost a similar proportion of Malay voters rejecting that coalition”. However, Merdeka Center’s survey cannot be side-lined in predicting the outcomes of the state elections. Which party wins is a matter of time but at the moment political stability at the state level is important for Malaysia.

This article is authored by Mehdi Hussain, doctoral candidate, Centre for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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