In a dining hall at Malaysia’s International Islamic University, 22-year-old undergraduate Hajar Wahab stood next to a makeshift polling booth, as she showed a fellow student how to mark and cast an election ballot.
Hajar is part of an army of student leaders across Malaysia aiming to battle political apathy and educate first-time voters on the voting process ahead of a tight election race on Nov. 19.
At stake is government stability: since the previous election in 2018, Malaysia has had three prime ministers and seen the collapse of two administrations, while two major opposing coalitions have splintered.
The infighting has exhausted voters, with two local elections held in the past year seeing lower than average turnout. Both state polls saw decisive wins for Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s ruling coalition, as disillusioned voters stayed away from the ballot box.
Student leader Hajar said while the fatigue was understandable, it was important for young people to voice their frustrations in the national arena.
“It should further drive you to vote,” she told Reuters. “Get mad!”
Young voters form a sizeable portion of the six million people newly eligible to cast a ballot, following reforms that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and allowed automatic registration. Voters under 40 now make up about half of the 21 million electorate.
The students’ efforts appear to be bearing out, with more recent polling data indicating turnout will improve amid the influx of new voters and as campaigning ramps up towards election day.
“Young voters feel that it’s an important election that they should not miss, particularly young people who are voting for the first time,” said Ibrahim Suffian, the director of independent pollster Merdeka Centre.
“They do want to go out and make their mark.”
The concerns over government stability and leadership come at a time of rising inflation and a cloudy economic outlook, which will also drive turnout, Ibrahim said.
Incumbent premier Ismail Sabri’s alliance Barisan Nasional is seeking a stronger mandate, and distance itself from the multibillion-dollar 1MDB corruption scandal that erupted when Najib Razak, the now jailed former leader of Barisan, held office.
Barisan faces two major coalitions in the election – one led by the anti-establishment opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, and another by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who was forced out of Barisan after confronting Najib over 1MDB.
Several other smaller parties are also contesting in an election that will see a record 945 candidates vying for 222 parliamentary seats, a factor that could split the vote several ways.
Rival blocs will likely need to form alliances, as no single party or coalition will be able to win enough seats to form a government on their own, polling data has shown.
Digital marketer and first-time voter Muhammad Imran Hazem Ashari, 22, said he would “vote for any party that could give us stability.”
Some voters, however, remain turned off by the constant political wrangling, believing that their choices will have little impact.
Eddie Putera Noordin, a 55-year-old artist, said he felt it was “a crime to vote”, as he had no confidence in any of the candidates or parties contesting.
“I’m scared to vote because whoever you choose will be part of a weak coalition,” Eddie said.
“They have to form alliances with parties who were rejected in the elections, and will end up forming the same type of government.”