With more than a week to polling day, the Election Commission’s (EC’s) optimism that there will be a 70% voter turnout during the upcoming Sabah state election does not reflect the reality on the ground due to the worrying trend of a spike in Covid-19 infections.
It is expected around 1.12 million eligible voters will be casting their ballot.
But the recent emergence of the Benteng Lahad Datu cluster in the state might scare some Sabahans away from voting on Sept 26. This cluster was first discovered on Sep 1 with seven people infected.
By last Wednesday (Sept 9), the cluster had a total of 130 people infected. This worsened to a total of 420 infections as of Sept 14 when 17 people were infected.
We have seen in Kedah how one cluster of Covid-19 infection can spread to neighbouring Perlis and northern Penang.
The recent spike of Covid-19 cases in the districts of Tawau and Lahad Datu serve to heighten the low voter turnout in the respective constituencies.
There is the fear that it might be difficult for voters to apply physical distancing measures on polling day itself when there are long queues at polling centres.
Several groups might contribute to the low voter turnout in the Sabah election.
Firstly, senior citizens are particularly the most vulnerable group to infectious diseases, especially those with other underlying chronic health conditions. Due to health concerns, they might not choose to vote to reduce the risk of contracting Covid-19.
Secondly, for Sabahans who are originally from rural constituencies, they might feel that going back to their constituencies just for the sake of voting is time- and cost-consuming.
There is a high possibility of exposure to the virus when they travel via air or road.
Not to mention, with the Covid-19 virus overshadowing the election, some families might choose to avoid the crowd at polling centres and thus, do not vote.
The pandemic may also affect voter turnout in an indirect way. Some Sabahans in the Peninsula have become jobless as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. They would be more preoccupied with looking for a new job, rather than returning to Sabah to vote.
This is despite the price of airfare appears to have normalised recently. A check on one-way ticket from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu revealed it can cost as low as below RM200.
Although some have been calling for postal voting among Sabahans in the Peninsula who number around 25,000 registered voters including the civil servants, and Sabahans who reside abroad, the Election Commission (EC) is not planning to extend postal voting to these group.
Another factor that may result in a lower voter turnout is when some residents might find it particularly troublesome to vote based on the specific timing suggested by the EC.
Families members who are staying in the same house have been given different voting time.
For instance, a family member was given the 8am to 10am time slot to vote, while another family member who also resides in the same house, was given a time slot of between 2pm and 4.30 pm to vote. This makes the voting process more complicated.
Hence, different voting time suggested by the EC might hinder families who are staying together to go out to vote. Some family members might just feel can’t be bothered to vote separately.
Another factor for low voter turnout is the youth’s disillusionment in politics. Many young voters may not be planning to vote as they feel it’s meaningless to vote for candidates who might party-hop after winning.
They are tired of the sweet promises given by politicians as at the end of the polling day. There is this perception that politicians are fighting among themselves for their self-interests instead of prioritising the people’s needs.
Moreover, their desire to topple the Barisan Nasional (BN) during the 14th General Election (GE14) may be muted now when the Warisan-led state government did not manage to fully or effectively resolve and mitigate socio-economic issues such as job prospects among youths and basic infrastructure access among rural residents in its 26-month rule.
Now, even though the recent Chini and Slim by-elections reflected higher voter turnout at 73.87 and 68.4 per cent respectively, this does not mean that a similar pattern will be repeated in Sabah.
The scale of the Sabah state election is relatively larger compared to Chini and Slim whereby 73 state seats are to be contested.
Also, unlike GE14, there is an additional 13 state seats to be contested in Sabah.
Voters’ inclination and turnout regarding these additional state seats cannot be ascertained this time around as many factors come into play, some of which have changed since.
However, no matter how challenging the situation is, political parties and independent candidates are expected to proactively influence and motivate voters’ behaviour to come out to vote on Sep 26.
Amanda Yeo is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.