KUALA LUMPUR - Younger Malaysians will not be able to vote if a snap election is called despite the fact that the voting age was reduced last year.
Electoral reforms passed by the Malaysian Parliament in 2019 to reduce the voting age to 18 from 21 cannot be implemented in time if a snap election is called within the next six months or even into early next year.
At least seven million Malaysians - most of them young adults who could make up more than 30 per cent of eligible voters - could be missing from the electoral rolls, significantly affecting the strategy of parties gearing up to appeal to a larger electorate for the next or 15th general election which is not due until 2023.
The Election Commission (EC) has said that the new voting age, which is directly tied to the implementation of the Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), is on track to be implemented by July 2021, and recent events have not altered that timeline.
"The AVR will not be in force or implemented within the next six months should there be a call for an election," EC deputy commissioner Azmi Sharom told The Straits Times.
The EC said that 18-year-olds would not be able to register manually to vote as their registration is tied concurrently with the implementation of the AVR.
In a rare instance of bipartisanship in Malaysia, the proposal to reduce the voting age and implement the AVR - long demanded by those campaigning for electoral reforms - passed unanimously in Parliament last year during the Pakatan Harapan administration.
The move to automatically register voters will lead to a significant increase in the number of voters on the electoral roll, possibly by 50 per cent, as it will not only add younger voters into the mix but also millions of those who had not manually registered to vote.
As many as 3.4 million people who qualified did not register as voters during the 2018 election and that number has since increased to 4.1 million, Dr Azmi said.
The 2018 election saw the long-ruling Barisan Nasional lose power for the first time in the country's history.
The EC did not have exact figures for new voters between 18 and 21 years old, but electoral watchdog Bersih 2.0 estimated there will be between three and four million such new voters, depending on when an election is called.
Bersih 2.0 chairman Thomas Fann said it would be "unfortunate" if those who turned 18 were not allowed to vote despite Parliament's approval.
"Expectations were raised that youth would be allowed to participate in the political process of voting, but (they are) still not allowed to," Mr Fann told The Straits Times.
Dr Azmi said that the EC projected that there would be 23 million voters for the election in 2023, eight million more than the number who registered for the 2018 poll.
There is increasing speculation that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin will call a snap poll to end doubts over his government's mandate.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin took office in March at the head of a new loose coalition called Perikatan Nasional after leading 40 MPs out of the former Pakatan Harapan coalition. The walkout led to the collapse of the government led by former premier Mahathir Mohamad who resigned.
However, Mr Muhyiddin has a tenuous hold in Parliament with its majority only in the single digits. That majority will be tested when Parliament reconvenes on Monday (July 13).
Several leaders from Umno, the party with the most seats in the PN coalition, have repeatedly called for an early election. A key Cabinet member, Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, recently said that a snap election was possible this year.
PN parties have endorsed Mr Muhyiddin to be the coalition's Prime Minister should they win the next poll.