More at stake than just parliamentary seats

By Rita Sim | rita.sim@
07 June 2012
EMOTIONAL POLLS: Debates heat up in coffee shops and street corners

A coffee shop scene in Batu Pahat. In such venues, the focus is on the next general election.
RECENTLY, four friends at a coffee shop argued over who to vote for in the coming elections in a heated exchange that was loud enough for those sitting at the nearby tables to hear.
The discussion was clearly divided down the middle, and both sides were making their arguments fiercely, even to the point of raising their voices and questioning each other’s convictions.
This is the tone that has been set for the 13th general election. Malaysians and non-Malaysians, voters and non-voters alike, are talking about the election on a daily basis with a fervour usually reserved for football and badminton.
It looks like this may be the most emotionally charged election that the country has faced in recent times.
There is more at stake than just the parliamentary seats. Malaysia is coming of age, having reached a reasonable level of development and maturity where its citizens are becoming more conscious that the country’s needs to go beyond basic infrastructure and services.
Former United States president John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”.
In the Malaysian context, voters are saying that they will contribute their vote, but in return, the government of their choice has to live up to its mandate.
Like the 2004 and 2008 elections, Malaysians are voting for the country’s future, in a departure from previous elections where most people voted in gratitude for the government’s past achievements.
Voters first started showing these stirrings in the 2004 election, but most were still willing to give Barisan Nasional, led by then-new prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, a chance to take the country forward.
The political tsunami of 2008 was a postponed reaction from 2004, where voters cast their ballots in protest against what they saw as unchecked corruption, inefficiency and abuse of power in the system.
In the upcoming election, which has to take place by April next year, some of these protest votes against BN will probably have hardened into full-fledged support for the opposition. However, some voters who had previously chosen the opposition may be changing their minds now, based on the performance of some of the Pakatan-led state governments.
With greater awareness of national issues, voting rights and the electoral process, Malaysians are starting to value and exert the power of their vote. We are now seeing the highest number of registered voters yet, largely due to increased individual awareness as well as registration drives by the Election Commission and political parties.
Unpredictability will be another characteristic of the election, as many of the newly registered voters, and even some seasoned voters, are fence-sitters.
They pledge no allegiance to any party and their votes will be influenced by how they feel about a particular party (whether they are happy with the performance of elected officials, any scandals that may have occurred or the “anything-but” attitude).
At the same time, there remains a high proportion of eligible but non-registered voters — 20 per cent by the Election Commission’s count as of December last year.
However, these non-registered voters are not sitting idle either. Many are contributing just as passionately to the public discourse from their armchairs.
Arguably, their decision not to vote is a form of protest in itself; many are saying that they see little point in voting for either coalition as they are equally dissatisfied with both.
The pending election is also shaping up to be the most divisive. The results are by no means a fait accompli, and politicians on either side are playing on emotions, using racial issues to inflame sentiments and making wild promises.
As Malaysians take to the coffee shops and street corners to debate feverishly about the state of Malaysian politics, it remains to be seen whether we can keep a cool head on our shoulders when we eventually go to the ballot boxes for these watershed elections.
Writer is a co-founder of the Centre for Strategic Engagement (CENSE)
Read more: More at stake than just parliamentary seats – Columnist – New Straits Times

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