ON paper, the 5,558-vote winning majority of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s Dr Mansor Othman during the recently concluded Penanti by-election looks stunning. Indeed, it is more than a two-fold increase of the 2,219-vote majority polled by Mansor’s predecessor, Mohammad Fairus Khairuddin, during the March 2008 general election.
In fact, at 6,052 votes, Mansor polled 85% of the total votes cast on 31 May 2009.
But here is the cold water that has been poured on Mansor’s parade: only 7,101 voters out of the 15,384 registered voters in Penanti bothered to vote on polling day. The Election Commission (EC) has confirmed that at 46%, this is one of the lowest voter turnouts in Malaysia’s history.
But the Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) are not analysing these figures with any nuance or circumspection. To the PR, Mansor’s victory is a “clear mandate” from Penanti voters — end of story. The BN and especially Umno, on the other hand, yawn at Mansor’s win since the low voter turnout apparently means the majority of voters are tired of PKR’s “politicking”.
Nevertheless, to the ordinary citizen, now would be a good time to actually crunch some numbers and ask what they actually mean. For instance, even though Mansor’s majority was impressive, it really means that he only received support from 39% of the entire registered electorate. That’s not a “clear mandate” by any stretch of the imagination.
But wait, there’s more. According to the Stockholm-based intergovernmental organisation, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, there were 15.2 million Malaysians who were of voting age in 2008. However, of this number, only 10.9 million, or 71%, had officially registered to vote.
So, if we take this into account, this could mean that the 15,384 registered voters in Penanti only represent 71% of the total number of eligible voters in Penanti. This would mean then that there are actually 21,667 eligible voters in Penanti. If that is the case, then Mansor only has the support of 28% of the total number of eligible voters in his constituency.
Also, for a constituency that has been dubbed a PKR “stronghold”, a 39% approval rate among registered voters sounds like the pickings are actually a lot slimmer than what people may assume. Of course, it is clear, as asserted by PKR elections strategist Saifuddin Nasution, that approval from PKR’s hardcore supporters remains intact. But what of the BN’s supporters and, more importantly, the fence-sitters? Why exactly did they stay home on polling day?
Why didn’t they vote?
And this is where the BN’s claim that these voters were sick of PKR’s politicking also does not hold water. When a voter stays away from the ballot box, we have to first of all ask, was the voter coerced or induced to stay away, or did he or she stay at home voluntarily? Already, a big hoo-ha has been made about Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin‘s remark urging Penanti voters to stay home on 31 May. Were voters convinced by Khairy’s call?
But more importantly, asking people not to vote is an offence under the Election Offences Act. Did Khairy commit such an offence? That is a question the EC has to answer.
But let’s say voters stayed home of their own accord. We still do not know for certain their motives. Were they merely experiencing by-election fatigue, regardless of their political allegiances? Or were they staying home as an explicit mark of protest against the PR? It is very hard to tell.
If they were indeed trying to protest, it would be easier for the public to gauge this mark of protest if they had all gone to the polls and spoilt their votes. Of course, even the motives for spoiling a vote are not conclusive. One could spoil a vote simply by being careless or ignorant of voting regulations.
Voters on polling day. But where were the rest of them?
Having said that, an unusually high number of spoilt votes is a clearer mark of protest than simply staying at home on polling day. The difference is between staying home (being passive) or actually showing up to vote (being active) and trying to tell all the candidates that they are unconvincing contenders.
Spoilt votes in Penanti this time amounted to 107, or only 1.5% of total votes cast. Were these actual protest votes? Again, it is hard to be conclusive about anything at this point in time, given the overall uniqueness of this by-election’s figures.
It is what it is
The point is not to say that the BN is wrong in playing up the low voter turnout, or to say that the PR is misguided for downplaying it. The point is, as American Idol judge Simon Cowell is fond of saying, it is what it is. Yes, it is yet another by-election in which the PR won legitimately. But it is also the first of the six by-elections held since March 2008 that has displayed such a low turnout and these accompanying statistics.
Sure, it is easy to conclude that voters did not vote because the BN did not bother to contest. But this is not an answer that explains everything satisfactorily enough in an environment where elections are free but not exactly fair.
Having said all of that, the clearest mandate any candidate can boast of is the one obtained when an overwhelming majority of eligible voters bother to register, and then voluntarily vote on polling day.