By Rozanna Latif
JOHOR BAHRU, Malaysia (Reuters) – Malaysia’s Johor state will hold the first elections since the country lowered its voting age to 18 on Saturday, with 750,000 new ballots added to regional polls seen as a litmus test for a general election which might thus be called an.
Political parties are pitching younger candidates, promising jobs, digital connectivity and business aid, in a bid to woo new voters in Johor, where reforms lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 and allowing automatic voter registration expanded the local electorate by one-third.
Polls for the state legislature will be closely watched ahead of national elections that could be called as early as July, which would be the first big test for Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and the ruling Barisan Nasional alliance, led by his United Malays National Organization. (UM NO).
This election will see 5.8 million new eligible voters in Malaysia, an increase of 40%.
Analysts expect Johor’s election to swing in favor of UMNO, the dominant regional force until recently, but a victory may not be easy with the sudden influx of young voters.
“Johor is a chance for us to learn how to approach and campaign for young people,” said Mohd Hairi Mad Shah, a local UMNO candidate.
“Turnout will be an indicator of our success in mobilizing voters amid the COVID-19 pandemic and an uncertain political environment.”
Since 2018, Malaysia has had three prime ministers and seen the collapse of two governments and the break-up of two major opposing coalitions.
Many young people in Johor told Reuters they were fed up with internal political infighting and could not keep up with the many factions at play.
In a harbinger of future elections, polls in Johor will have multifaceted battles for the state’s 56 seats, with two governing coalitions in power, an opposition alliance and several independent parties and candidates all vying for a square.
“You have so many parties now but they are all the same,” said saleswoman Sharifah Nurdiyana Syed Azhar, 20, who will vote for the first time on Saturday.
Young people who spoke to Reuters were unfazed by efforts to woo them – including those from the Malaysia United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), a newly formed youth and reform party.
“Young voters are more objective and less loyal to certain parties,” said MUDA candidate Afiqah Zulkifli.
“The biggest challenge for us is to convince them that we are different and that we have the right ideas and policies for them.”
(Editing by Martin Petty)