Changing voting trends among the young

NST: 01 March, 2008
By Johan Jaaffar
IN many countries today, fewer people are voting. In the United States, hardly 50 per cent of eligible voters cast their vote in the last presidential election. In the United Kingdom, they are lucky to get 60 per cent of the electorate to vote. In the 2001 UK general election, 25.9 million people voted, the lowest number since 1918. The figure was 84 per cent in 1950. By comparison, during the UK Pop Idol season, in its 20-week run, the contestants received 32 million SMS votes.
Have people lost confidence in the democratic process? Are many disillusioned with politicians? Or, is it they simply can’t be bothered?
There is another worrying trend – young people are not voting. According to Mori, a polling organisation, in the 2001 UK general election, only 39 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds who were eligible to vote fulfilled their responsibility, while the percentage of those 65 and above was 70 per cent.
In 2000, the presidential election that was responsible for putting George W. Bush in power, hardly 29 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 voted. In Japan’s House of Representatives election three years later, less than half of those below 30 voted.
The trend in Australia is more alarming. Analysts believe there is a deepening alienation – particularly among young people – from the political system as a whole. At the same time, the number of young people registering as voters has declined dramatically over the years. So alarming is the trend, the Australian Election Commission has undertaken a four-year “Youth Electoral Study” to “explore why many are not enrolling to vote and how best to encourage them to become more active democratic citizens”.
In the 1999 general election, Umno lost a significant number of votes. But it was not the election results that shocked the Umno leadership. Prior to one of the most contentious elections in the country’s history, they were concerned about unprecedented political activism among the young. The opposition parties were getting massive support from the young – at least if one judged by the political machinery at all levels.
More importantly, Malaysia discovered a new and potent election tool used widely for the first time – the Internet. It was a weapon of mass destruction for Barisan Nasional. BN haters and detractors in the Internet were at their pernicious best – attacking anything that moved in the BN hierarchy.
It was effective in undermining the ruling government. Information, or mostly misinformation, was downloaded from the Internet. These materials were distributed to the far corners of the country by the young.
The Internet is a double-edged sword for the government of the day. It was part of the national policy to wire the country and to embrace information technology. The Multimedia Super Corridor was mooted to herald the country to the brave new world of ICT. But in the 1999 election, the Internet was the government’s greatest enemy.
I asked an individual who helped to mastermind our foray into the digital realm: has he any regrets that ICT had been used to attack the government? No, he said, without hesitation.
Did he realise how potent the power of the Internet was as a campaign vehicle? Yes, he admitted. But he believed there is such a thing as “Internet fatigue”. People simply have had enough of “this nonsense” from the Internet. Truth shall prevail.
Our voters are not stupid, he pointed out. Besides, most of the young involved with the opposition didn’t even register to vote.
He was right. Judging by the role the young had played in 1999, you wanted to believe the voters had abandoned BN entirely. But BN still has the faithful, the believers and the hardcore supporters.
The tag-line for Umno at the time was Dulu, Kini dan Selamanya (Then, Now and Forever). No one needs reminding of Umno’s track record since it was founded in 1946. In 1999, it was true that quite a substantial number of Malays abandoned Umno. The party lost many of its strongholds. It needed non-Malay votes to win in some areas. But still BN was back in power with a two-thirds majority. The opposition was distraught.
BN will not lose power merely by noise and anger. It is a consummate political machinery. Never take BN for granted. It took many years to bring back the young to Umno, largely through the tenacity of Umno Youth leaders and the creation of the Puteri wing.
Today, the episode of 1998 and the 1999 election are largely forgotten. In 2004, BN was given a resounding victory, in part because of the new prime minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
This election, things are a lot calmer and BN has fewer issues to worry about. Again, the Internet is a formidable campaigning machine. But then again, hardly 25 per cent of our population has access to it. Only seven in 100 individuals in the country have a PC.
True, SMS is another effective campaigning vehicle. But SMSes alone can’t win elections. More importantly, the young are not as alienated as they were before. Many are now working hard for the ruling party.
Perhaps it is true, there is such a thing as a better rating of “establishment acceptability” among the young today.
Even in the US, after the 2000 presidential election, there was a better turnout among young voters in the last two elections. Youth voting in the US surged by 11 per cent in 2004.
There is another interesting phenomenon in the coming US presidential election – Barack Obama is attracting young and new voters. Could it be possible that this election will register the highest number of young voters in US history? Perhaps, it all depends on whether Obama represents the Democrats.
More than 10.3 million voters in this country will cast their votes on March 8. Many among them are young and first-time voters. They have a choice of 1,109 individuals offering themselves as state representatives and 481 candidates for parliament. BN offered 545 new faces this time, 42 of them under the age of 40. The opposition, too, offered young hopefuls.
More importantly, we expect the young to fulfil their responsibility to make an important decision that will determine the destiny of this country. Prove the sceptics wrong. Our young are responsible citizens, too!