Can (Young) Voters be Trusted?


GE 15, the 15th Malaysian general election on 19th November 2022, has been analyzed in many ways. Probably the most commented elements of its outcome were the appointment of veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim (74) as Prime Minister and the decline of the Barisan Nasional, the vehicle for decades of UMNO’s dominance. What is coming up with some delay is the much-anticipated impact of a change to the constitution. In July 2019, the Parliament had enacted the Constitution (Amendment) Act 2019, which contained provisions to lower the voting age to 18 and allow for the automatic registration of voters. The inclusion of young voters was a success story of the advocacy group Undi18, which was born as a student movement in 2016 and started to officially lobby for its cause with a memorandum to then Prime Minister Najib Razak in April 2017.

Since the constitutional amendment, and especially in and long before the official election campaign, politicians and commentators were speculating about possible changes by the enlarged and much younger electorate. Indeed, with the similarly new automatic registration the number of voters increased to 21.1 million, and the reduced age limit added 1.4 million young and first-time voters, with a total of 6.9 million potential new voters. There was a clear expectation that the role of young and younger voters below 40 would be pivotal. All post-mortem election analyses, as usual, depend very much on the party affiliation or programmatic and ideological preference of the analysts. Losing parties tend to believe that those who have given their vote to other parties are ungrateful, mistaken, uninformed, or outright stupid. And even if a party has won because of the lack of alternatives, their top dogs will attribute the success to their own convincing leadership and their farsighted programs for the glorious future of the country.  

Concerning the real voting patterns of the youngsters, some research results have come up in the meantime. Hisomuddin Bakar, director of Ilham Centre, a market research company in Kuala Lumpur, found that almost 90 per cent were unaware of current political developments, that some were unable to differentiate between MPs and assemblymen, or even recognise existing political parties. According to his research results, most of them followed family traditions or relied on social media as main source of political information. But the encouraging result of the Ilham survey is the assumption that around 80 percent of the first-time voters exercised their right to vote. That is a fabulous increase from the Johor state election in March, when the turnout of young voters was only five per cent.

Interestingly, Hisomuddin adds to his critical assessment that young voters are slightly more politically literate than older generations, as they can access information online. The influence of the social media consumption, Hisomuddin says, can be seen in the success of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition among young voters. PN had used social media in its campaigning, including narrative content on TikTok. But in a regional comparison, Malaysia seems to be behind the Philippines, where the landslide victory of President Marcos in May was prepared by an army of trolls in the social media. Candidates there were all hiring trolls and have created tens of thousands of easy jobs for which you need just a SIM-card and a telephone or a PC and Wi-Fi.

Whatever politicians, parties, and analysts may say about the ideal voter and how first-time voters might qualify to be taken seriously, a comparison must encompass young and old, urban and rural, enlightened or not. For many decades, political scientists are debating how informed the average and the ideal voter should be, whether voting is a rational decision at all or just emotional and following the all-too-common herd instinct in politics. Very important for the outcome is, of course, the current political situation before the election, in the GE15 a mix of complications of utmost impact for the stability and the future of the country. And, not to forget, a political impasse can be such a deterrent that many voters, young or old, don’t bother at all to go and cast their vote. In Europe, where in many countries the non-voters outnumber the leading parties, civic education in schools and comfortable voting by mail are not really boosting the turnout. The so-called mature democracies don’t appear to be more mature in political knowledge and voter decisions. According to figures of the European Commission, visualized by Statista, the turnout of young voters between 18 and 30 varies between 79 per cent in Austria and 35 per cent in Luxemburg. And in the USA, the overall voter turnout notoriously remains below 50 per cent.
For the outcome of GE15 in Malaysia in November, the youth vote was not decisive. The formation of the new ruling coalition under Anwar Ibrahim, according to many analysts, shows much more the moderating influence of the King and his fellow rulers.

   

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