MELAKA - The Melaka state election has become a muted, unpredictable affair because of fears about a resurgence of Covid-19.
Curbs on campaigning for the polls this Saturday (Nov 20) have made it difficult for the three major coalitions in the contest to gauge voter sentiment.
Malaysia's Election Commission and National Security Council (NSC) had, on the advice of the Health Ministry, banned political rallies and even walkabouts by senior political leaders and candidates.
Except for the array of flags which adorn the city centre and its outskirts, there is little evidence of polls taking place in a state which witnessed a bitter contest in the 2018 general election.
Despite being one of the smaller states in Malaysia, Melaka has a racial composition and urban-rural split similar to the national averages, potentially making Saturday's polls a bellwether for the next general election, which is not due until 2023 but is expected to take place in the latter half of next year.
Candidates and politicians have relied on only small-scale visits to connect with voters. International Trade and Industries Minister Azmin Ali, who is also the election director for Perikatan Nasional (PN), one of the three major coalitions taking part, visited two mosques and turned up at a badminton court on Monday (Nov 15).
One of the youngest candidates in the polls, 25-year-old Muhamad Danish Zainudin from Pakatan Harapan (PH), had breakfast three times in different restaurants on Tuesday (Nov 16).
The third coalition in the contest is the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) which is going head to head with PN as well in Melaka even though both are allies propping up the government in Kuala Lumpur.
Datuk Seri Azmin acknowledged on Monday that the election was proving to be a challenge for PN, which is a relatively new entity as it was formed just over a year ago following the collapse of the PH government in the capital.
PN, especially Mr Azmin's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), which is led by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, is fielding a number of new candidates in the polls.
"We are having to resort to social media to introduce our candidates and our manifesto," said Mr Azmin.
The authorities have come down hard against any transgressions of campaign rules, with stern fines on candidates, as well as parties. Health authorities are present at every small-scale political event, and the authorities have so far issued RM200,000 ($64,900) in fines. One event featuring Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob was not spared.
Mr Danish, a first-time candidate who is locked in a five-corner contest in the crucial Pengkalan Batu seat, said there were concerns about low voter turnout.
The Election Commission has targeted a 70 per cent turnout in the state but many expect it to be lower.
"It is difficult to gauge voter sentiment because we can't meet people directly," Mr Danish told The Straits Times.
Mr Kerk Chee Yee, a PH candidate for Ayer Keroh, said that people worried about Covid-19 were talking about abstaining from voting and this could impact heavily on the performance of PH which regularly fares better in urban areas where a high voter turnout is usually apparent.
"If the turnout is very low, PH might be left with fewer than six representatives, and BN will make a strong comeback," he said.
PH won power in Melaka for the first-time in 2018, mirroring its unexpected victory at the federal level. But the PH state government collapsed due to defections in early 2020, just as its federal counterpart was ousted for similar reasons.
Another round of defections in October saw the BN-led state government, which replaced the PH one, also lose its majority leading to the dissolution of the legislative assembly.
The constant politicking in the state has also left some voters with a sour taste.
"Even with a campaign, we know that politicians often misrepresent things. That is probably the main issue for my peers, which is that we have little confidence that the candidates are able to deliver on their promises," said 40-year-old contractor Lim Wei Ting.
The Covid-19 curbs on the election were put in place by the Health Ministry to prevent a repeat of what occurred in Sabah in 2020. A Covid-19 outbreak in the east Malaysian state during a state election spread to the rest of the country, undoing much of the early success in containing the pandemic.
Malaysia, including Melaka, has just returned to relatively normal life following months of lockdown which only ended early last month, and most businesses are still in the midst of recovery.
More than two-thirds, or 75.2 per cent, of Melaka's population have been fully vaccinated, but hospital admissions in the state have gone up by 80 per cent in the past week since campaigning began.
Melaka has the third highest Covid-19 incidence rate among Malaysian states and territories, with 28 cases per 10,000 people.
Malaysia reported 6,288 Covid-19 cases on Wednesday (Nov 17), an increase after four days of cases hovering around the 5,000 mark. The number of new cases, as well as hospital admissions, have also been rising around the country in the past week.