Malaysia drowns in Campaign Colors

In practically all languages, the contest for parliamentary seats is called election “campaign”, except in Germany where it is traditionally called “Wahlkampf”, meaning election fight or election battle. But compared to most other electoral democracies, the German campaigns are increasingly boring with little interest in rallies and speeches of candidates, even if the top cabinet brass is showing up. The contrast to this electoral fatigue could not be bigger in the unfolding battle in Malaysia right now! Posters and flags in the party or coalition colors are omnipresent, rallies attract big and sometimes huge crowds, often in a sort of carnival atmosphere. It is also the time when the campaign turns into a battle with accusations flying back and forth in ever more heated and ferocious speeches. Vociferating candidates seem to be part of the entertainment expectations of the crowds coming to the rallies, whereas real arguments are not what candidates feel an urge to use and crowds want to hear. Manifestos with details of plans and visions of the parties are practically ignored, except by some journalists or political scientists, and instead, promises, lies and sweetened or poisonous narratives are all over the partisan mainstream and social media.

The outcome of the upcoming GE 15 is certainly less predictable than most previous elections, not least by the lowered voting age. According to the Election Commission, 40 % of the 21 million voters are between 18 and 21 years old. The pundits try to gauge how they will participate and vote and whether the top contestants, many in their seventies, can connect with this young generation. Rising flight prices and Monsoon floods in several areas of the country might prevent more than a few voters to travel to the home states for casting their vote.

The voter turnout in Malaysia started high in the first general election after independence in 1959 with 73.3% and continued to be high in the following decades. With 82.3% in 2018 it was even extremely high compared to the turnout in most European countries, not to speak of the notoriously very low turnout in the United States.

The voter turnout reflects the public perception of the importance of the decision in terms of future policy outcomes and the ability of the contenders to fulfil at least part of their election promises. But the atmosphere and mood of the special Malaysian campaign style certainly plays a role for the individual decision to vote. The limitation of the campaign period, just two weeks before polling day on 19 November, is at least helping to keep the campaign expenditure under a semblance of control. During the decades of Barisan Nasional and UMNO rule, the campaign budget was a big problem, but only for the opposition. That limitless money flow for BN eventually brought them down in 2018, when major corruption practices could not be camouflaged anymore.

The organisation cost of elections in Malaysia has increased from RM 1 million in 1959 to RM 500 million in 2018 and might go up to one billion this year. The campaign costs for the parties are more difficult to gauge, of course. The expenses allowed to be incurred per candidate are RM 200,000 for the federal parliament and RM 100,000 for a state election. The biggest problem for the parties is the absence of a volunteer tradition among the rank-and-file members. Every help and input must be paid. Therefore, the traditional thumb rule is “Tanpa minyak jentera tak jalan” in Malay or “Without fuel the machinery will not move”. According to Malaysia Today, the mineral water bottles with imprinted party logo alone cost already more the RM 100 million in 2015. The overall expenditure, against the intention and in breach of the legal regulations, has been in the billions for decades, explaining the ubiquitous party t-shirts, hats, meals for rally participants as well as the sea of flags and banners. In the difficult economic situation of Malaysia with a slow post-Covid recovery, high inflation and a depreciating currency, the costly election campaign is an additional financial burden. Like in many countries in the region, huge campaign costs are one of the root causes for corruption and money politics.
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