Party matters most to voters

By Santhi Oorjitham, NST

Voters in the next general election are 10 per cent more likely to look at the party rather than the candidate compared with those who cast their ballot in the 2004 polls, according to a recent survey by the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM).

Crunching such numbers could prove useful as parties plan their election strategy — right down to when they should announce their line-up of candidates.

Back in August 2004, 56 per cent of about 1,650 voters polled said the party was the main influence on their vote, recalled Professor Datuk Seri Syed Arabi Idid, head of the university’s Elections Study Group. That rose to 60 per cent in a similar survey just after the March 2008 polls.

And in July this year, 65 per cent of those surveyed named the party as the most important factor. The biggest rise was among Bumiputeras and middle-aged voters (aged between 35 and 50).

Of those who looked more at the candidate when voting, the highest number came from the young voters — 37 per cent of those aged 21 to 35.

That’s a significant number, since 4,360,000 voters were below 40 in the 2008 elections (about 40 per cent), compared with 6,540,000 above 40.

At the next polls, voters under 40 could make up about 42 per cent of the total, estimated UCSI University lecturer Dr Ong Kian Ming, an election analyst.

Supporters of Barisan Nasional, DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) are more likely to choose based on the party than the candidate this year than in 2008.

In 2008, 64 per cent of BN supporters said they voted for the party but this year, 69 per cent would vote for the party. (See chart.)

The biggest jump is for supporters of DAP and PKR. In 2008, 54 per cent of each party’s supporters would vote based on party, but this jumped to 67 per cent and 69 per cent this year.

Part of the reason for the focus on the party could be the timing, explained Syed Arabi.

“Malaysian voters usually don’t know the candidate until Nomination Day. They usually decide on the party first and that decision is made far ahead.”

“Party preference, once formed, may be harder and slower to change,” added Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Dr Lim Hong Hai. “A one- or two-week campaign may not be enough to change it for most respondents or voters.”

Although the party is the main factor for the majority of voters, pundits still recommend announcing candidates much earlier.

“Parties should tell or at least hint who will be the candidates early, giving a year in which they can be examined closely,” urged Syed Arabi. “The candidate can start building support and infrastructure on the new media, for example, and identify voters and supporters.”

There is a risk of infighting if candidates are announced early, he admitted. But it could be done in “states where the party structure is strong — in Perak, Sarawak and Sabah for the BN, for example, and in Penang, Selangor, Kedah and Kelantan for the opposition”.

Early announcement of candidates was most important for PKR, added Ong, “because they are seen as the weakest link in Pakatan Rakyat in the sense that many of their candidates who were elected later defected and two were asked to step down. They should announce early so voters can be assured they are good quality candidates”.

At the national level, parties “must be solid in terms of their leadership — no back-stabbing and bickering”, said Professor Dr Mansor Mohd Noor, of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, who has been researching elections since 2004.

“They must hold to a common view of public issues to be managed and solved — rather than denying issues raised by the public.”

Coalitions should strengthen cohesion among component parties and “improve their image in terms of policy announcements,” suggested Syed Arabi.

“The prime minister has tried to link up with the young on Facebook and Twitter, but other leaders have not shown they are communicating with the young.”

Younger voters have less political knowledge, reckoned Ong.

“While most do not know who their members of parliament and state assemblymen are, they are much more likely to be swayed by appeals by leaders at the national level.”

Older voters look at what the party has done for them in the past, said IIUM research coordinator Azrul Hisyam Wakichan, but the young and the middle-aged look at candidates, issues and what the party can do for them.