MAY 4 ― “It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting” ~ Tom Stoppard
It’s only a matter of hours now before the campaign for the 13th general election comes to a close. When it does, the event planners who co-ordinate the preparations for political rallies across the country and the staff and volunteers of the political parties who do all the behind the scenes work will eventually go back to their more routine jobs.
The political banner and flags will come down and political posters will gradually fade away into the background. There will no doubt be some reckoning and wounds that will need to be healed, while others will bask in the glory of victory ― however emphatic or razor thin it may be.
There will indeed be many unforgettable moments and words that will become associated with this campaign. But voter turnout will likely not be the most memorable of the things we’ll likely recall in the months and years ahead. Yet, the turnout along with the legitimacy of the voting process will be the most consequential of factors to the outcome.
The intense mobilisation of the public, coupled with the unprecedented turnout and euphoria evident at opposition rallies are but only some of the indications that there may be a record voter turnout on elections day. Of course, what it will be is anyone’s guess. Recent trends, however, suggests that the turnout will be well over the watershed mark of almost 76 per cent set during the 2008 election.
According to data from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, while 76 per cent of the registered voters cast their vote in 2008, it is also fascinating to note that the percentage of the voting age population that actually voted was only slightly above 53 per cent. The voting age population is currently estimated at slightly over 15.6 million with most estimates suggesting that about 13.3 million are registered to vote.
These figures suggest that clearly more than half the current population is of eligible age and, this time around, some 85 per cent of eligible Malaysians are registered to vote. This is a 15 per cent increase from situation in 2008, when only 10.7 million of the 15.2 million of eligible individuals were registered to vote. Based on this change, one may infer that the public is certainly far more turned on to politics now than ever before.
You would have to go back to the elections of 1990 to find more than 80 per cent of eligible individuals registered to vote (and when the voter turnout was 70 per cent). Prior to 2008, that was also the last time the opposition garnered more than 46 per cent of the popular vote while increasing their seats in parliament by 45 per cent.
Two obvious questions follow. First, will the ballooning of the electoral roll translate into a voter turnout that surpasses the 2008 rate of 76 per cent? Second, how will this play out for either coalition? To be sure, with the extraordinary expansion and ubiquity of the alternative media, and the availability of almost instantaneous and detailed information on the various campaigns and races this time around, the voting public has perhaps never been as politically engaged and absorbed in an elections as it is this time around.
Given the trend noted above and the palpable energy that surrounds the opposition’s campaign, we should expect that a markedly higher voter turnout across the board this time around would not bode well for Barisan Nasional. Add to this the galvanisation of the younger voters ― those who are typically more amenable to fundamental change in a system ― and you have a situation that exacerbates Barisan Nasional’s dilemma. Not surprisingly, various independent and reliable polls are also reporting that the incumbents in Putrajaya and indeed facing an up-hill task.
However, citizens exercising their right by voting is only but one part of the election process. Turnouts, as consequential as they may be in determining the outcome of an election, are only going to matter if the process of counting the votes is credible. So the legitimacy of a government rests not on the act of vote casting by the people, but on the credible account of those votes.
Unfortunately, throughout the elections campaign, there has been ample controversy surrounding the Election Commission to raise concerns about its credibility and the potential for the democratic process to be compromised.
So after all the speeches and rallies, all the accusations and mud-slinging, fear-mongering and feistiness, all the propaganda and doling out of enticements, and after all the hype and drama, the country seems poised for a historic voter turnout. How loud and clear will the message from the voters be? Will the country discover that it is as polarized as never before? Will the voter stay the current course, or make a dramatic break from the past?
A credible voting process is the only way to ensure that whatever the voter turnout, it rightfully represents the Will of the people.
* Sunil Kukreja is a Professor of Sociology and Associate Academic Dean, University of Puget Sound.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.