Malaysia is gearing up for fresh elections in the state of Melaka next month following another round of defections, just as daily COVID-19 cases are coming down to their lowest level since the end of June.
The state election held in Sabah on September 26 last year was denounced for causing the country’s third COVID-19 wave. The state polls involved 73 state legislative seats, with over 440 candidates and a voter turnout of 66.3 percent.
Major political parties also sent many of their loyalists, lawmakers, and campaign volunteers to the eastern state, with politicians often posting photos from their campaign trails without face masks or social distancing in crowds. Malaysia had yet to roll out its vaccination program at the time, nor had the Delta variant arrived in the country.
Within two weeks, from the nomination day on September 12 to polling day, Sabah’s cumulative cases shot up by over 90 percent to 1,547 cases. A month after the polls on October 24, total cases in Sabah grew to 11,285, making it the first state in Malaysia to pass the 10,000 mark.
Concerns over a repeat of the Sabah state poll coronavirus resurgence led to tougher voting rules to curb the spread of COVID-19 during the Melaka state elections. But there are divided opinions on whether the new rules will see democracy compromised by lower voter turnout and unequal campaign conditions.
Data presented by the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S.-based think tank, showed that while countries such as the Dominican Republic and North Macedonia registered lower voter turnout in their elections last year, countries like Burundi, Singapore, and South Korea saw an increase in voter turnout due to various reasons, with the latter recording the highest voter turnout since 1992.
The same disproportionate trend can also be seen in the number of COVID-19 cases reported weeks after the election. South Korea reported no transmission from its April election, while Singapore saw cases rising after its nationwide polls in July last year, though its earlier easing of restrictions could have been a contributing factor.
This suggests that there is still insufficient evidence to determine any causal relationship between elections and a spike in COVID-19 cases in a country.
Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin is not taking any chances and has already issued a month-long ban on election-related gatherings and events effective until November 27 to minimize any risk of another virus outbreak.
Critics such as electoral watchdog Bersih 2.0 contend that a sweeping ban on all political gatherings for the Melaka election is a suppression of democracy as it denies candidates the liberty to campaign and voters the right to make informed decisions.
The prospect of limiting campaigns to remote options further restrains candidates from reaching out to many parts of the voting-eligible population, particularly marginalized and minority groups.
The Melaka state legislative assembly has 28 seats, with 495,196 people eligible to vote. In the 2018 general election, voter turnout was at 85 percent. The Election Commission (EC) expects voter turnout to be around 70 percent for the state polls on November 20.
Opposition legislators in Parliament earlier this week pre-emptively questioned the potential misuse of government events for political ends in the run-up to polling day, with different rules applied for rival camps.
Some Pakatan Harapan lawmakers proposed equal media airtime on national TV channels for all political parties and candidates instead of physical rallies, as carried out in Singapore.
Others pointed out that outdoor transmission of the virus is generally uncommon compared to events held indoors, especially with mandatory face masks and social distancing measures in place. Equally noted is that 95 percent of the country’s adult population are fully vaccinated.
On the other hand, health groups such as the Malaysian Medical Association, the country’s largest union representing doctors, support a total ban on physical campaigning, which they described as “necessary” to prevent another surge as the country is still “not out of the woods.”
Its president, Dr. Koh Kar Chai, said that although Malaysia’s adult vaccination rate is over 90 percent, COVID-19 continues to spread even among the fully vaccinated, and especially among unvaccinated groups, including children below the age of 12.
Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy chief executive Azrul Mohd Khalib told local online news portal FMT that the country “will definitely” see a spike in new coronavirus cases from the Melaka state elections due partly to rising breakthrough infections.
He said it must be admitted that the country still cannot organize large-scale elections that would enable voters to safely participate in campaign activities and cast their votes during an infectious disease epidemic.
Many politicians continue to “selectively observe or ignore altogether” public health guidelines, and election rallies are no different, Azrul said. “Experience tells us no amount of policing or enforcement is going to work unless people are proactive and supportive of these measures.”
The EC has yet to issue a full guideline on the upcoming state polls, though it will likely include mandatory face masks, social distancing measures, and additional polling streams.
A snap poll during a pandemic will also cost more to run, with the Melaka state elections expected to amount to 46 million ringgit, just over a third of the amount spent on Sabah.
It is hard to predict if the country will see a catastrophic surge in not just COVID-19 cases, but more importantly, hospitalizations and deaths in the weeks after polling day in Melaka.
With booster shots being administered and interstate travel allowed, among other factors at play, the public health outcome of the election can go either way. With state elections also due in Sarawak, authorities must get it right in Melaka.