COMMENT | It is a few days before polling day in Malacca. Red, blue and the occasional yellow flags pepper the roads across Malaysia’s majestic historical gem.
If it was not for the signs, flags and modestly-increased traffic, one would not believe there is an election happening. Residents are going about their everyday business, focusing on surviving, largely disconnected from the political competition.
The situation on the ground is markedly different than any other election in Malaysia. There is little excitement.
Part of this is due to the Covid-19 imposed campaign SOPs that have removed face-to-face interactions with voters and stopped rallies, neutralising the ability of parties to build momentum and to personally reach out to voters.
Traditional campaigning has been stopped. Instead, candidates and party workers drive around looking at voters from afar. Sometimes they visit the occasional restaurant or roadside stall.
The impact has been further distancing politicians from the electorate, taking away one of the few opportunities to receive feedback and engage the public at large.
Pakatan Harapan in particular has been hampered by the new campaign rules, as they lack the same level of grassroots party machinery of BN/Umno and depend more on building campaign momentum.
Part of the campaign changes is also driven by broader social changes in how voters access their political information through social media, especially WhatsApp, and with only a modest increase in television coverage of Malacca candidates (one with a horse!) on television.
More voters are making their mind up alone rather than through shared personal exchanges. Covid-19 has accentuated the individualization of political decision-making, reducing social interactions.
Most important, however, are shifts in the political landscape. Voters are clearly less enthusiastic and engaged with politics (and politicians). Hope for change has ebbed as politicians and parties have been exposed as “all the same”.
At the same time, voters are focused on their everyday lives, struggling to survive, awaiting an economic recovery that has yet to arrive. As cynicism and survival replaced optimism and comfort, political disengagement has set in.
Stale campaign messages
Voters have not been given much to choose from in the campaign. All three of the coalitions have relied on “old” nostalgic messages - stability, hope, and protection.
They have done so with ironic messaging: Umno/BN’s “stability for prosperity” belies the reality that Umno has brought down two national governments (and five state governments including Malacca) in the past year and a half.
It is not worth forgetting that the gross corruption within the party led to its downfall in 2018 under Najib Abdul Razak and the party remains seriously internally divided. Stability is no longer a label meaningfully associated with the party.
Harapan’s “Maju Bersama Harapan” message ignores how lack of cooperation and infighting contributed to their downfall and how a lack of adequate attention to reforms has eroded hope for many.
Finally, PN’s “Melaka Prihatin” contrasts with the lack of meaningful concern to the state during Muhyiddin Yassin’s tenure with the slow vaccination programme and uneven financial support. This is most felt in the tourist sector that remains devastated.
The parties have yet to redefine themselves in the new landscape, holding onto their now-outdated idealist versions of themselves. The manifestos similarly show a lack of careful thought, laundry lists for some and in all a lack of attention to how to address the unique problems Malacca faces.
This includes problems with sea reclamations, the negative impact of climate change, jobs, wages, inequality and agriculture and service sectors, notably tourism, that need greater support.
Malacca has also not been featured on the national policy radar, and there is also poor internet coverage and infrastructure in more rural parts of this state. The state has been taken for granted, not properly prioritised in the country’s development trajectory.
The election has brought a bit more business, some road repairs and a few outlandish 5G-first promises but the hard questions of how can Malacca become stronger remain unanswered, not imagined or thoughtfully considered.
The most striking example of this disconnected thinking comes from the PN campaign.
As in the Sabah poll, Muhyiddin’s photo is featured. Here the tagline is “Abah Sayang Melaka” with similar patriarchy and protector themes.
Muhyiddin seems to have forgotten he is no longer prime minister and fails to realise that the father left the house when it was facing trauma tied to poor Covid-19 governance.
Nevertheless, he is resting his campaign on his popularity - one that risks the same troubled fate of his short tenure.
Muhyiddin’s PN arguably has the most flags flying across Malacca - raising questions of where the resources for these came from - but his image also is next to separate signs of current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, and it is noteworthy to point out that it is without a party or coalition logo and with his own tagline “Keluarga Malaysia”.
Ismail Sabri is also making himself present in the campaign but in an ambiguous way. As one voter said to me, “Is he the son?”
A lack of clarity between BN and PN is present - with both using navy blue in their campaigns. Umno’s flag is not flying, as it is relying on the dacing (coalition’s logo) for its support. It has added a touch of red to the BN campaign material.
Many voters, especially in the more semi and rural seats, are not sure which coalition is which. Who is who in the family?
One interesting outcome of the campaign will be how much PN, using the most blue, can appropriate from BN. The confusion adds to the disengagement of the electorate.
Turnout will determine the victor in the Malacca election. Harapan needs a strong turnout to win seats.
Low turnout favours Umno/BN, as it can rely on institutional advantages as well its stronger (yet markedly weaker this time round compared to GE14) party machinery.
One advantage is the early-voting system. The high early voter turnout this week of 89.9 percent was considerably higher than that in GE14 at 76.2 percent.
These votes always favour BN, which captured 69 percent of these in GE14 (down from 88 percent in GE13 in 2013). While at least 23 seats have early voters, especially police and military, the effect of this early vote is especially important in nine seats.
Of these, Sungai Udang, with its military camp, has the most early votes, but these votes will also be important in close races such as Lendu and Bemban.
Another key group will be whether outside voters come home. Parties are scrambling to bring them back as they make up at least 15 percent of the Malacca electorate.
As polling day arrives, momentum is modestly gaining. There are lots of candidates, but voters do not see many choices.
However, more voters are tuning in, even if with greater ambivalence. The lacklustre, visionless, SOP-neutered campaign has not given them excitement, but there remains a sense of obligation, pride in participation, a sense of place that is Malacca and being from Malacca.
With all eyes on this gem, there is inkling in the surprises of this competitive election that history will once again be made.
BRIDGET WELSH is a senior research associate at the Hu Fu Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies and a senior associate fellow of The Habibie Centre. She currently is an honorary research associate of the University of Nottingham, Malaysia's Asia Research Institute (Unari) based in Kuala Lumpur. She tweets at @dririshsea.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.