Malaysian opposition backs bid to lower voting age to 18

Parties' agreement paves way for Pakatan Harapan administration to amend country's Constitution

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad held a closed-door meeting with parliamentary heads of Umno, the fundamentalist Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Gabungan Parti Sarawak, to lock in their support, in return for meeting their stipulated conditions. PHOTO: AFP

Malaysia's Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration will be able to pass a proposed amendment to the Constitution to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, after the opposition yesterday agreed to support it.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad held a closed-door meeting yesterday morning with parliamentary heads of former ruling party Umno, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) to lock in their support for the Bill, in return for meeting their stipulated conditions. The Premier said the opposition had pledged to support the Bill. "I am confident. I don't think they will deceive me," Tun Dr Mahathir told a news conference.

Opposition leader Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who was also at the news conference, said: "As the government has agreed to include our suggestions, the opposition bloc will support this."

The opposition had demanded that voters' names be automatically added to the electoral rolls once citizens reach voting age, and candidates can run for election once they turn 18, down from 21 currently.

The opposition's conditional agreement will pave the way for the Mahathir administration to amend Article 119 of the Federal Constitution. This would mark the first time a constitutional amendment has been achieved by a Malaysian government which does not control a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Without their rival parties' support, PH and its allies would be nine seats short of the two-thirds majority of 148 required to pass the motion, tabled last Thursday.

Umno secretary-general Annuar Musa had said: "The opposition will have no problem supporting the amendments if all of our requests are accepted."

On Tuesday, Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman announced on Twitter that the conditions set by the opposition regarding the amendment had been approved in exchange for their support.

GPS parliamentary chief whip Fadillah Yusof said his party would support the proposal if it came with automatic voter registration. GPS, a coalition made up of Sarawak-based parties - Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, Parti Rakyat Sarawak, Parti Demokratik Progresif, Parti Rakyat Bersatu Sarawak and Parti Sarawak Bersatu - has 18 of the 222 seats in Parliament.

"We can consider the viability of fielding 18-year-olds as candidates in elections later. We have suggested a proper study on this matter while considering the various views of stakeholders," he was quoted as saying by The Star daily.

The government withdrew the Bill yesterday in order to make the changes before it is read out again today. The Bill is scheduled to be debated next Tuesday and could pass as soon as the following day.

If passed, it would mark the first Bill in Parliament to receive multi-partisan support since PH came to power in May last year.

The new law would mean that two-thirds of Malaysia's 30 million citizens will be eligible to vote in the next elections due by 2023. Now, there are 15 million registered voters, 3.8 million unregistered voters, and 1.5 million Malaysians who qualify as voters by 2023 if the voting age is reduced to 18.

Independent Sabah lawmaker Yamani Hafez Musa also supported the move, saying that lowering the voting age to 18 would empower young people to have more say in the country's future.

"Being a former youth leader, I believe in youth empowerment, so together with automatic voter registration, we have the potential to make the electoral process more democratic and inclusive," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2019, with the headline Malaysian opposition backs bid to lower voting age to 18. Subscribe