Undi18 voters just missing out on Sarawak election could lead to future backlash, say analysts

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Party flags seen at the Marudi ferry jetty at Sungai Bakong, next to the Iban Sg Arang ethnic village, a major thoroughfare between the town of Marudi and Miri and Bintulu, Sarawak, December 2, 2021. — Bernama pic
Party flags seen at the Marudi ferry jetty at Sungai Bakong, next to the Iban Sg Arang ethnic village, a major thoroughfare between the town of Marudi and Miri and Bintulu, Sarawak, December 2, 2021. — Bernama pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 4 ― The exclusion of 18- to 21-year-old voters from the Sarawak election despite the lowered voting age coming into effect just ahead of it might cause resentment that could carry forward to future polls, said analysts.

Bersih 2.0 chairman Thomas Fann said the resentment could be due to the timing, which some have interpreted as intentional to exclude the younger voters from the state election.

“From a legal point of view the minister is correct to say that the gazette of December 15 as implementation of Undi18 and AVR (automatic voter registration) does not mean 18-year-olds can vote in the coming Sarawak election but it just goes to show that that around 666,000 Sarawakians could have voted if they had lifted the Emergency just a month later.

“Many youths would believe that the timing to lift the Emergency was a political calculation to deny them their right to vote and may punish them come GE15 for the parliamentary seats,” Thomas said briefly when contacted.

The Emergency proclaimed in Sarawak to avoid holding the state election alongside the Covid-19 pandemic had only been due to expire in February next year, but was lifted last month on the state government’s request.

This week, the government gazetted the 2019 constitutional amendments to lower the voting age and introduce automatic voter registration, but Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Parliament and Law) Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar clarified that Undi18 would not be in place in time for the Sarawak state election.

Wan Junaidi, who is also Santubong MP, explained that the gazette was made so as to meet the deadline of December 31 as ordered by the High Court and that significant administrative work still remained before the initiative could be applied next year.

The state election was first suspended under a nationwide Emergency from January 11 to August 1, and had been further delayed until next year via an Emergency on Sarawak only from August 2, 2021 to February 2, 2022.

The Sarawak state election would only have needed to be held 60 days later, which meant it could have been conducted as late as April next year, giving more time for Undi18 to be put in place.

UndiSarawak’s research lead Nadia Malyanah said there would be backlash but that it was too early to gauge how significant this would be as the voting tendencies of 18- to 21-year-olds were still not established.

When contacted, Nadia told Malay Mail that young voters were traditionally apathetic towards politics and may decide not to vote at all, especially in states where voting districts have been delineated and voters are distributed or added to an uneven playing field between parties.

“They might see this as being ‘not worth the effort.’”

“For now, it’s hard to gauge whether most 18 or 20-year-olds are equipped with relevant political and voter knowledge, and much will depend on how the political parties plan to woo them and whether the government will prepare them at all in the next year,” said Nadia.

“So long and short of it is: there will be a backlash but we can't tell for sure how that backlash will look like in terms of voter turnout and voter preferences.”

She also said the sudden announcement of the state election would more likely cause more blowback from older out-of-state voters who had to put up with higher costs in order to exercise their ballot.

“They can’t postal vote but their counterparts overseas can,” she noted.

Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun was another who felt it was too soon to estimate the significance of Undi18.

On March 25, 2021, the Election Commission had said that its records showed that there are currently 1.2 million Malaysians aged 18 to 20 but how many of them will vote and how they will vote is a number no one has at the moment.

While younger voters typically tend to be more liberal and progressive, Oh said this might not be the case in Malaysia.

“How they will vote now is questionable so it is not easy to ascertain how these individuals will vote,” he said.

Oh sentiments were echoed by Universiti Teknologi Malaysia geostrategist Prof Azmi Hassan who said Wan Junaidi’s explanation for the delay in implementation to be plausible and reasonable.

“Will there be any backlash in GE15? I don’t think so,” said Azmi.

“Come GE15 all of them will be able to vote. As far as Sarawak goes, GPS (Gabungan Parti Sarawak) had always said they welcomed the 18 to 20-year-olds to vote but the timeline here, it’s just too early,” he added.

The implementation of Undi18 and the AVR is expected to see some 5.6 million additional voters, comprising 4.4 million aged 21 and above; and another 1.2 million aged between 18 and 21 by December 30.

The federal administration under Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob has repeatedly said that Undi18 and automatic voter registration will come into effect by December 30, 2021.

This comes as the EC announced December 18 as polling day for the upcoming 12th Sarawak state election.

The electoral roll contains 1,252,014 voters so far.

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