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Shifting sands of state elections

The recent state polls confirm the perception of a more divided society and the erosion of support for the dominant coalitions of the past


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By Danesh Prakash Chacko

The 3–3 outcome in the six state elections recently was expected: Perikatan Nasional retained Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan while Pakatan Harapan held on to Penang, Selangor and Negri Sembilan.

But a deeper examination of the results reveals more uneven outcomes.

Combined with the demographic impacts of the lowering of the minimum voting age from 21 to 18, these state elections yielded similar outcomes to the 2022 general election in the seats for the six states this time around.

Changing demographics

Voters cast their ballots in 245 state seats in the six states, ranging from 32 in Terengganu to 56 in Selangor.

The lowering of the voting age in 2021, not only changed age breakdowns, but altered urbanisation, ethnicity and voter types (eg military, police and civilians).

In line with urbanisation trends, the number of urban and semi-urban seats in the six states has risen.  

The 2018 general election had 97 urban seats, and after the lowering of the voting age and a general rise in the number of voters, this figure has inched up to 98 urban seats.

Because of the uneven nature of growth in the number of electors, a miniscule number of seats either shifted from urban to semi-urban or semi-urban to rural.

Table 1: The number of state seats based on the level of urbanisation (in the 2018 general election and the 2023 state elections)

In terms of ethnic majorities, the lowering of the voting age resulted in more mixing of constituencies (eg the rise in “others” and Orang Asli voters).

The number of predominantly homogenous ethnic Malay and ethnic Chinese seats has dropped while the number of mixed seats has grown.

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Among the Malay-majority seats, the reduction in seat homogeneity was not pronounced.

However, among Chinese-majority seats, the shift to a more heterogenous make-up was noticeable (eg Bagan Dalam, Perai and Lukut).

Two mixed seats turned into Malay-majority seats (Lunas and Jeram Padang).

For voter type, the share of ordinary voters has grown by 0.4% on average, the share of police voters fell by 0.2% and the share of military votes slipped by 0.2%. Some seats with a heavy military presence saw drastic changes in favour of ordinary voters (eg Bukit Pinang, Kok Lanas and Gemas).

To a limited extent, the demographic changes laid the ground for the shift in electoral outcomes in selected seats.

Five key takeaways

1. The dominance of older parties or coalitions in urban and rural seats has cracked

Both the 2018 general election and the 2023 state elections showed that PH has a strong grip on urban seats. This grip has been shaken though: PH suffered a net loss of about 15 urban seats, primarily to Pas and Bersatu. The low turnout and shifting patterns in Malay urban seats resulted in PN parties being the beneficiary in the recent state elections. (Gerakan won its first electoral seat in 10 years).

As for rural areas, Umno and Pas dominated 55 seats in the 2018 general election. But the tables were turned in the 2023 state elections: Bersatu was the primary beneficiary as Umno fell to second place. Such changes in urban and rural seats mirror what took place in the 2022 general election.

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2. The turnout in the recent state elections bucks the past trend during state elections

Turnouts for state elections had been usually lower than general election turnouts while the urban turnout usually plummeted compared to the turnouts in semi-urban and rural areas. However, the situation was reversed during the 2023 state elections: the urban turnouts on average were slightly higher than rural turnouts.

This may be related to the unusually low turnout in Kelantan. The low turnout (compared to the 2022 general election) in semi-urban and urban Malay areas cost PKR some seats. Close to two dozen PKR seats that switched to PN were previously won by PKR with margins of less than 50% in 2018. The low turnout at the recent elections could have accounted for such flips.

3. Parties with deep roots in a single community and known for promoting their cause were the primary winners in the recent state elections

In Chinese-majority seats this time, the DAP’s maintained the dominant performance it achieved in the 2018 general election. Even though some of the Chinese-majority seats became mixed in the recent state elections, the DAP held on to them.  

In the 185 Malay-majority seats at the recent state polls, PN commanded 145. We cannot attribute this to the “green wave” as the numerical gains of Bersatu and Pas are more or less the same. But Umno, PKR and Amanah lost ground in this realm.

4. The army and police votes are no longer with Barisan Nasional

Historically, these voters represented a strong bastion for BN. But the 2021 Malacca state election showed that PN could break BN’s firm hold on these voters. During the 2022 general election, particularly for Selangor, BN lost its grip on early votes (from army and police personnel) and had to share their dominance with PN.

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In the state seats of Bagan Pinang, Linggi and Gemas – where military votes account for over 10% of the electorate – two of them fell to PN in the recent state elections. With a high turnout among early voters in the state polls, the 2022 general election outcomes were replicated among early voters this time around.

5. Changing demographics may have tipped the election outcomes in selected seats

Lunas in Kedah shifted from a mixed seat to a Malay-majority seat because of the lowering of the voting age. With a drop in turnout and shifts among Malay voters, Lunas pivoted away from PKR to Bersatu. Similar shifts took place in Derga, Gurun and Bukit Selambau, all in Kedah.

The recent state polls confirm the perception of a more divided society and the erosion of support for the dominant coalitions of the past.

We can expect a more competitive and robust political scene in future elections, as the core voting blocs backing these coalitions have cracked.

Considering this, voters should continue to exercise their right to vote and be more discerning when choosing their representatives.

Danesh Prakash Chacko is a research analyst with the Jeffrey Sachs Center at Sunway University. He also serves as director of the electoral reform group Tindak Malaysia

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.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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