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Evolving electorate: Malaysia’s changing voter behaviour

This article is authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars of international relation, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Malaysia’s political landscape is a rich tapestry woven with the threads of its diverse history, culture, and society. As a country with a multi-ethnic population, politics is influenced by the interests and aspirations of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and indigenous communities, each with its unique perspectives and priorities. For decades, the political arena was largely dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and its coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), which held power for an extended period since independence. However, a transformative moment occurred in the 2018 general election, when a wave of change swept through the nation, resulting in the defeat of BN and the ascent of a new coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), led by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. This marked the first time in Malaysia’s history that the ruling government experienced a peaceful transfer of power. The shift in political dynamics has brought renewed vigour to the landscape, with increased focus on issues such as governance transparency, social justice, and economic progress. Additionally, the recent lowering of the voting age to 18 through the Undi 18 constitutional amendment has further energised the political scene, empowering a significant number of young Malaysians to participate actively in shaping the nation’s future.

As Malaysia gears up for state elections in Selangor, Penang, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu, political parties face the imperative of effectively engaging with the electorate and addressing the practical concerns that resonate with the diverse and recently empowered young voters. The outcome of these elections will undoubtedly influence the country’s trajectory, shaping the path of its democratic journey and socio-political development for years to come.

Traditionally, political campaigns have relied on rhetoric, ideological battles, and emotive topics to appeal to voters across various demographics. However, the emergence of an awakened citizenry along with a new generation of young voters demonstrates a distinctive inclination towards pragmatism and a desire for tangible improvements in their daily lives. A broader section of the population, encompassing diverse age groups, is increasingly prioritising economic challenges as a primary consideration when making their voting decisions.

The Malaysian electorate, as a whole, is becoming more discerning, seeking concrete solutions to address pressing economic concerns that impact their livelihoods and well-being. Issues such as unemployment, affordable housing, education costs, and stagnant wages resonate deeply with Malaysians of all ages, making them key determinants in shaping their political preferences. Citizens are calling for practical policies that address these bread-and-butter issues, and they are more likely to support political parties or systems that can demonstrate a genuine commitment to tackling these challenges effectively.

In this context, new-generation voters across various countries are part of a growing movement seeking meaningful change through the political process. Many of them, despite growing up in households that did not discuss politics, have developed an increased interest in government and civic affairs over the years. Like millions of others, they feel both excited and anxious about the prospect of casting their first ballots, recognising the significant value of their votes in shaping the direction of their countries. However, they also share a common concern about whether their votes will truly lead to tangible improvements and bring about the desired changes in their societies.

As Malaysia prepares for the state elections, political parties must be attentive to the concerns of both young and older voters. Engaging with the electorate and offering practical solutions to economic challenges will be crucial in winning the support of the Malaysian population. The focus on economic issues will likely be more pronounced as people under 40 become the largest voting cohort in the country. Parties that can effectively address these concerns and inspire confidence in the electorate, especially the young voters, are likely to gain an advantage in the upcoming state elections. The outcome of these elections will be closely watched as it will provide insights into the impact of the youth vote and the direction of Malaysia’s political landscape in the coming years.

Despite the significant increase in the number of young voters in Malaysia due to the Undi 18 constitutional amendment and a change in the overall voter behaviour, challenges such as political indifference, barriers to discourse, and the urban-rural divide pose obstacles to their active participation in the democratic process. Many voters, especially the younger generation exhibit a sense of political apathy, feeling disconnected from the political landscape and sceptical about the impact of their votes. The urban-rural divide further exacerbates this issue, with urban youths generally more politically aware and engaged compared to their rural counterparts.

Limited access to education and diverse perspectives in rural areas can lead to disengagement from the political process. Moreover, barriers to political discourse within educational institutions hinder opportunities for students to openly discuss and critically analyse political issues. These challenges may create an environment where young individuals are more susceptible to the influence of political rhetoric. Lacking sufficient platforms for open dialogue, they may be swayed by emotive topics and ideologies without fully understanding the broader implications of their choices. As a result, addressing these challenges is crucial to ensure that the voices of young voters are heard and that they actively participate in shaping the nation’s future. Efforts to foster political awareness, promote discourse, and bridge the urban-rural divide will play a pivotal role in empowering young voters to make informed decisions and influence positive change in the country.

As countries adapt to evolving voter behaviour, it is essential for political parties, civic organisations, and educational institutions to collaboratively support the active participation of all voters. Embracing these measures will pave the way for a more inclusive and representative democracy, where the voices of citizens are valued, and heard, and play a crucial role in shaping the future direction of their societies. By fostering political awareness, promoting open discourse, and bridging divides, nations can cultivate a politically engaged and empowered electorate, driving positive change and progress for their nations’ prosperity.

This article is authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars of international relation, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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