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State polls: Brace yourselves for the moment of reckoning!

Voters must take these elections seriously instead of sitting them out

ANIL NETTO/ALIRAN

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We are fast approaching elections in six states: Selangor, Kelantan, Negeri Sembilan, Penang, Kedah and Terengganu.

All six state assemblies have been dissolved: Kelantan on 22 June 2023; Selangor on 23 June; Kedah, Penang and Terengganu on 28 June; and Negeri Sembilan on 1 July. State elections must be held within 60 days of dissolution.

Caretaker governments now administer all six states until new state governments are formed after the elections. Bersih has rightly reminded these caretaker governments not to announce any major decisions or projects during this period.

Who will be the candidates?

Negotiations for state seats have been ongoing, and many are keen to see how the main coalitions will allocate the seats among their coalition parties.

The federal opposition bloc, Perikatan Nasional, will apparently contest all 245 seats up for grabs in the six states, with 126 seats allocated to Pas, 83 to Bersatu and 36 to Gerakan.

As for the federal “unity government” comprising Pakatan Harapan, Barisan Nasional and coalitions from Sarawak and Sabah, Zahid Hamidi, the BN chairperson, expects the states seats to be split 55% to PH and 45% to BN.

Into this whole mix might also be candidates from the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) and Muda.

Some are monitoring women’s representation: will the various parties ensure that at least 30% of their candidates are women?

Before they were dissolved, the six state assemblies had dismal women’s representation, according to data compiled by researcher Wo Chang Xi.

As of 31 December 2022, the Selangor state assembly had 13 women out of 56 assembly members or 23.2%. Penang had six out of 40 or 15.0%. Kedah had five out of 36 or 13.9%. Negeri Sembilan had just two out of 36 or 5.6%.

The east coast states fared worse. The Kelantan assembly had only two women out of 45 members or 4.4% and Terengganu had no women among its 32 elected members (though it had one appointed woman member).

Will we see something different this time around?

What would the state polls show?

Will the state elections reflect satisfaction with the unity government’s performance over the last seven months and provide an indicator of the acceptance of the PH-Umno tie up?

Or will we see a wave of discontent spread across the six states, as some have suggested?

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Some quarters predict the unity government will keep Penang, Negeri Sembilan and Selangor, albeit with a bit of a fight, while Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah will remain with PN.

Other analysts, like this one, have a different take.

But really, the results are anybody’s guess, as it is the voters in each state who will decide the type of government they want for the next five years.

Whatever it is, the outcome will be crucial. The party or coalition that controls each state will have access to state funds and be able to promote and enforce laws and by-laws (together with the local council) – as long as they don’t contradict the Federal Constitution.

This has consequences on the lives of the people in these states. So voters must take these state elections seriously instead of sitting them out. They must avoid a low voter turnout and come out to vote.

How will the vote go?

It was only last November when we were all wondering how voters might vote in the general election. Would they look at the integrity of the candidate or the party logo or election manifesto promises?

What a surprise we had – at least some of us did – at the eventual outcome and the formation of the unity government.

Fast forward seven months and we are now looking at what could affect voters’ choices in the state elections. Many factors could influence how voters will cast their ballots, including the integrity of the candidates and their ability to serve their constituents well. (Non-performing state assembly members, beware!)

Some voters might mull over the stability of the state government and its relationship with the federal government.

Others might look at the government’s accountability and its anti-corruption stance.

Low-income voters could consider if the state government has provided enough affordable housing, social assistance and other essential services.

Others might cast protest votes over rampant overdevelopment in certain states or severe underdevelopment in other states. They might express their unhappiness over environmental degradation and the annual flash floods and poor flood prevention efforts.

Discontent over rising living costs, stagnant wages and the lack of decent employment opportunities could also influence how voters cast their ballots.

READ MORE:  Politicians stoke fear as Malaysia faces elections

All six state governments going into the polls face a combination of these issues. Some of these issues may vary geographically within a particular state.

Other inter-related factors that could influence voting trends include political allegiances and ideologies, socioeconomic class differences, the urban-rural divide, the age factor, communalism and gender.

Gender voting

In an article after last year’s general election, political scientist Dr Bridget Welsh looked at voting by gender. Her analysis suggests slightly more women than men turned out to vote compared to the 2018 general election and that PN gains were driven by the support primarily of women, predominantly concentrated among Malay women.

The votes from women are important in any electoral outcome. If indeed women’s votes can swing the outcome, how are the various parties or coalitions going to gain the respect and confidence of women voters ahead of the polls?

What matters to women voters

So what really matters to women voters? It could well be a combination of the list of issues discussed earlier.

Then again, the outcome might depend on how well women and their families have fared or the type of help or opportunities women have received or experienced since the last state elections.

But what about:

  • the never-ending (and oh-so-tiring) obsession with moral policing and control of women’s bodies and autonomy
  • the lack of trust and investment in women’s political leadership. Look at the paltry women’s representation of fewer than 30% of state assembly members and MPs. This means that not enough women are at the main table of decision-making to influence how the country or the various states are run, or how policies are implemented
  • certain male politicians’ inappropriate jokes and comments, which reveal their inability to take women seriously or treat them as equals

Would any of these issues make women voters think differently about who they would vote for? The conservatism and condescension towards women and the exclusion of women from political decision-making are alarming and do not bode well for the nation.

These attitudes exist among politicians in both the unity government and the PN coalition parties. 

Voters should raise these issues, along with other grave issues, such as the regressive proposals to amend existing citizenship laws, when candidates come knocking on their doors to canvass for votes.

READ MORE:  Malay voters: Shades of choice

Voter discernment

Once the campaigning starts, candidates will showcase the efforts and successes of the state governments and their political parties or run down their opponents.

But voters, both men and women, must be discerning to decipher truth from fiction. They should not give in to token gifts or be taken in by empty promises. Many of us have been there too many times before.

We can only wonder how much the race-and-religion card is going to be played and what kind of impact it will have. We are repeatedly pitted against each other by irresponsible and unprincipled politicians who conflate and weaponise race and religion and use it as a rallying call for support.

This is a strategy to distract people from crucial issues such as poor governance, corruption, rising living costs, insufficient affordable housing and a lack of affordable healthcare. It is irresponsible and dangerous as it can lead to violence and religious extremism. Will voters be able to see through these distractions?

As the polls draw closer, we will no doubt receive an overdrive of information on social media. Voters will be fed truths, half-truths, false news, threats or just plain nonsense.

Will voters get wound up over such issues only to be told later the reports were berita palsu (fake news)? But often the damage would already have been done as perceptions are not easy to change.

Outrageous statements followed by apologies or assertions of things taken out of context are quickly becoming the norm. Will voters be able to untangle truth from fiction?

All of us, voters and candidates, need to be vigilant and responsible for the type of information we share, especially during the campaign period.

Hope for the future

Yes, these are ‘exciting times’ for the country once again. Until the elections are held and the outcome known, speculation will grow.

But people in these six states should remain calm and, importantly, come out to vote. Let’s hope the best candidates and parties are voted in to improve the country’s prospects along the uncertain road to recovery.

A long, long journey lies ahead.

Prema Devaraj
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
1 July 2023

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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