Voter turnout could be lower than 2016 – analysts


KUCHING – Desmond Labung will not be going home to Long Semadoh in the Ba’Kelalan highlands to vote in this weekend’s Sarawak state election. It will be the first time he is missing the polls in 15 years.

“Many of my friends will not be going back too. Some of them are in Peninsular Malaysia and they cannot get flights to come back. For me, the cost is one thing and the other is the COVID-19 restrictions on travel,” said 48-year old Desmond, an ethnic Lun Bawang, who is now a Kuching-based event organiser.

The most affordable way for him would be to take a flight from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu, then a four-hour ride in an 11-seater van from the Kota Kinabalu bus station to Lawas back inside Sarawak and another four hours in a four-wheel-drive vehicle on logging trails to reach his longhouse in Long Semadoh. All in, it would cost him RM2,000 for a return trip.

He cannot do the journey overland this time because he cannot travel through Brunei which has closed its borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Normally it would be a much-awaited trip for the entire family when he and his wife would cast their votes and catch up with uncles and cousins in the tiny Ba’Kelalan constituency of 8,503 voters. He has returned to vote three times before this. 

The Election Commission is expecting a repeat turnout of 70 per cent as in 2016.

However, political observers reckon the numbers could be lower time.

“I think 65 per cent is more realistic. The rainy weather now and COVID-19 are a big factor and besides, it is too near to Christmas. Voters who are working or living outside their polling districts do not want to go and come back again,” said Dr Jeniri Amir, Senior Fellow of the Malaysian Council of Professors.

In the past, political parties provided free shuttle buses to ferry voters to back their constituencies. So far, there have been no such announcements yet. 

About 250,000 Sarawakians are working in Peninsular Malaysia with 40,000 alone in Johor.

“Although 70 per cent is not impossible, a lot depends on how well the campaigns are done to convince people to go home by Dec 18,” said Jeniri.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at Singapore Institute of International Affairs, expects a thinner crowd because of voter apathy.

“The turnout will be as low as Melaka. A lot of voters would not like to vote because they don’t see their vote will make a difference. When there is a lower voter turnout, this will affect the opposition especially in the urban areas,” said Oh, who had spent the past few days here.

The recent Melaka state election drew a voter turnout of 65.85 per cent voters.

Some 1.25 million Sarawakians are eligible to vote, almost a 10 per cent increase from 2016.

Early voting for police and security personnel will take place tomorrow.