Elections now are real. No more flower pots for democracy.

The political landscape has changed leaps and bounds since 2018. The needle measuring the political ground temperature moves erratically, finding it tough to make an informed call.

As at 4pm today, the Election Commission (SPR), tasked to oversee the mammoth task for 21 million voters from Sabah to Johor, said 70% of eligible voters throughout Malaysia have cast their ballots. A healthy turnout. And the mood has been one of a carnival. I visited polling stations in Kuala Lumpur, Puchong and Sepang. People were coming or leaving in droves. There were long lines of cars outside schools that were turned into polling stations.

It’s now past 7pm on polling day. The official voting window has closed. No one is able to make a conclusive call on the victor. We will have to wait for a few more hours before we know who will helm the Federal government.

There was a time when the general election was won even before the first ballot was cast. The incumbent coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), with Umno as its lynchpin, had always had a formidable presence. In the past, they entered an election assured of victory. The only question was how many seats the opposition would nibble away. In fact, many voters who today lined up in the ‘saluran’ (lanes) meant for the elderly could not imagine a Malaysia not led by Umno and BN.

BN did lose states to the opposition. Kelantan fell to Pas very early in Malaysia’s nationhood story. The party ruled the state on the east of Peninsula Malaysia between 1959 to 1977, and then again 1990 onwards.  We leave out Sabah and Sarawak. They deserve a separate discussion.

At the federal level, BN had always had an ironclad grip on the federal government. In the first 11 general elections, from 1959 to 2004, the Opposition had mustered between 15 to 45 seats, making up 12% to 30% of the total seats in Parliament. The next two elections saw a big jump. In 2008, the Opposition won 82 seats, while in 2013, it went up to 89.

“The Opposition MPs are the flower pots of our democracy,” an Opposition member once told me in 2001. “They are there to tell the world this is a democratic nation. They can say: ‘See, we have Opposition lawmakers’.”

The results that emerged in the early hours of May 9, 2018, shattered BN’s six-decade hold on the nation. In the early days, they ruled as the Alliance. BN came into existence in 1973.

The change of government was a major milestone in the continuation of our nationhood journey.  In the days to come after the change of government, people went about their routine. There was no panic in the streets. It was all systems go. Malaysia had picked up a new lesson, and it did in style. The 14th General Election (GE14)  shattered the notion that only Umno and BN could safely and soundly manage affairs of this nation. Umno was no longer kebal (impenetrable).

That change was momentous. It has strengthened our democracy. It has made us more prepared in dealing with our lawmakers. It had made voters more resilient and matured. Simple proof of the pudding, this time around I did not get a call from a panicked relative, asking: “Do we need to stock up on ration?” Yes, in 2018, I received that call.

This time around, the voters are more mature. Well, that’s what my gut feel says. But it is backed by conversations with voters.

I approached a first time voter at a polling station in Pulau Meranti, said to be the oldest village in Puchong, Selangor. Caretaker minister Datuk Seri Rina Mohd Harun is running for the Sepang parliament seat here, under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) ticket.

Izayan told me he was happy to throw his support for the PN as he thought that former Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had done a good job during the pandemic lockdown. The 34-year old wellness manager was open to discussing his choice.

The next voter I approached was 20 year-old Iman Haziq, one of the 1.39 million voters aged between 18 and 20 years old. He wants to give Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim a chance to become Prime Minister. Why not Muhyiddin or Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri from BN, I asked. “Muhyiddin, darurat lah,” he said, alluding to the emergency proclaimed to manage the Covid-19 pandemic. “Rina? Dia buat hal (She caused a stir),” he quipped. He made some reference to an incident involving her which he did not appreciate.

Both voters did not attend any rallies or ground events held by the competing parties. Instead, they picked up their information from social media. The handphones helped shape their political thinking.

Whoever takes Putrajaya, Malaysia is winning, slowly and steadily.