How will the tide roll in GE15?

Borneo voters and youths could decide which coalition goes to Putrajaya.

THE Prime Minister has once again ignited a frenzied guessing game over when GE15 will be held, saying he hasn’t had any inspiration when to dissolve Parliament.

Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s remarks at the end of his visit to New York was in contrast to what he had said two weeks earlier, when he told Umno during the launch of the Barisan Nasional Youth election machinery that “we are very close to the election”.

Many then speculated that the Dewan Rakyat could be dissolved after Budget 2023 is tabled on Oct 7, but there have also been arguments that the polls will not be called this year as Malaysia approaches the annual monsoon season, which is likely to see floods in many parts of the country.

Ismail Sabri has already declared that the top five would have a big say on the election date.

While the date remains contentious, there is another common concern for politicians – just how will the ground swing this time?

Just last month, Umno veteran Tengku Tan Sri Razaleigh Hamzah predicted that no party or coalition could obtain a simple majority in the polls, a view shared by former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Even regular Malaysians feel that that the votes will be split many ways, with a slew of choices before them.

There is Barisan Nasional, Perikatan Nasional, Pakatan Harapan and the latest name in town, Dr Mahathir’s Gabungan Tanah Air. And that’s only in the peninsula.

There are also many other coalitions in Sabah, where Gabungan Rakyat Sabah now rules, and Sarawak, which has Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS).

To make it more confusing, parties that are at loggerheads in the peninsula sit together as comrades in coalitions on the other side of the South China Sea.

Things could get more murky if there are no clear winners in the national polls, forcing major coalitions into political pacts with smaller parties to secure the support of at least 112 MPs to form the next government.

One of the formulas that political parties fall back on is to look to smaller influential groups – both political and non-political ones – to try to swing support their way.

There are several groups that could decide on who goes to Putrajaya after the elections.

One sure kingmaker is GPS that has remained neutral, engaging both Barisan and Perikatan, to ensure its own best interests.

Judging by the two-thirds majority it obtained in the Sarawak polls last December, it is expected to cruise to victory again in many of the 31 parliament seats it will contest in GE15.

Even before the Sarawak polls last December, GPS had played a significant role in providing support for two prime ministers after the Sheraton move in February 2020, which brought down the Pakatan government.

GPS’ 18 MPs supported Perikatan’s Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin before he was sworn in as Prime Minister on March 1, 2020, with the Pagoh MP having a razor-thin majority with 114 MPs.

The Sarawak-based coalition also backed Barisan’s Ismail Sabri when he was nominated as prime minister on Aug 17 last year, giving him the support of 115 MPs.

The slim parliamentary majority enjoyed by both prime ministers reflects the crucial role that GPS plays, justifying its four full ministers and five deputy ministers in the Cabinet.

Another important factor in the elections would be the Undi18 category, comprising over 1.14mil new voters aged between 18 and 20.

However, they can only be real kingmakers if they actually come out to vote.

A recent study conducted by independent pollster Merdeka Centre found that only 33% of Malay youths are interested in politics and 40% of them will cast their ballots in the next general election.

Umno Youth exco member Bastien Onn, who has been working the ground in Segamat, agrees that youths are mostly uninterested in politics, saying this was reflected in the low voter turnout during the Melaka state elections last November and the Johor polls last March.

Bastien said Johor parents also don’t appear to be keen on having their children participate in politics.

“Most parents told me they want their children to focus on education,” said Bastien. “I don’t think it’s wrong. Any parent would do the same.”

Nevertheless, Bastien said he continued efforts to spread political awareness among youths by providing free online tuition to those in school, and speaking to young working adults.

Institute for Political Reform and Democracy (Reform), an NGO aimed at educating Malaysian youths on politics, agrees that only a small number of youths are interested in politics.

“They (youths) are still relatively new to politics. We need to take a closer look at our education system, particularly in secondary schools where civic and political education is lacking,” said Reform deputy director Akmal Hisham Abdul Rahim.

If youths are not convinced to vote, political parties will have a harder job convincing Malaysians at large to come out and vote.

The Opposition, at least, would want a large turnout.

In the 2018 general election, the voter turnout was 82.32%, and Pakatan swept to a surprise win.

Looking to replicate that scenario, Pakatan leaders, as well as NGOs, are working extra hard to convince politically disillusioned and fatigued Malaysians.

If they fail to rally the voters, a low voter turnout is likely to benefit Barisan, which has a larger support base compared to Pakatan Harapan or Perikatan Nasional.

However, as former UK prime minister Harold Wilson once famously said, “a week is a long time in politics” and the coming weeks leading to the dissolution of Parliament will be crucial in determining who has the upper hand at the polls.

Ismail Sabri has kept his cards close to his chest on GE15, but Malaysians seem to be keeping their cards even closer.

The ground has grown rather cold and silent, fuelling more uncertainty if a high turnout rate will benefit Pakatan.

If a political tsunami swept Pakatan into power in GE14, a silent wave of political fatigue, especially among the youths, could push Barisan back to power.