A new hashtag has been gaining traction among younger voters in Malaysia. #UndiRosak or #SpoiltVote is encouraging those dissatisfied with the current choice of candidates to cast spoilt ballots in the upcoming polls.
Frustrated with the choices of parties and candidates in the country's imminent elections, a movement that began in January has been gaining traction on social media, encouraging younger voters in particular to spoil their ballots.
Proponents of the #UndiRosak or #SpoiltVote hashtag argue that there is no difference between the ruling Barisan Nasional, which has run the country for 61 years, and Pakatan Harapan, a loose coalition of opposition parties.
Notably, the latter's proffered candidate is 92-year-old retired former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a leader whose previous policies some Malaysians argue have consolidated his one-time protégé and incumbent Najib Razak's grip on power despite various allegations of corruption.
Some say that it is the prospect of Mahathir returning to power that gave impetus to this new movement.
PM Najib has separately described the social media campaign as going against the democratic system practiced in Malaysia
In a recent letter to the Malaysiakini online news portal, Hafidz Baharom, one of the movement's advocates, wrote: "There are voters now who believe they are stuck with a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, without knowing they can just stand on dry land and not follow the lemmings. Voters should be informed that between two evils, you have a choice to choose neither if you want to."
Party over personality
The movement has unsurprisingly irked leaders on both sides of the political divide and many have accused its proponents of disregarding their duty as Malaysian citizens and abusing their right to vote by spoiling their ballots.
Both Prime Minister Najib and his deputy Zahid Hamidi have separately described the campaign as going against the democratic system practiced in Malaysia. Prominent civil society members and NGOs have also been urging Malaysians to ignore the campaign as it could have the opposite and adverse effect of consolidating Barisan Nasional's power instead.
Speaking at a forum last week in Kuala Lumpur, Azim Sharom, an associate law professor from Universiti Malaya, said he understood why Malaysians were cynical about handing power back to Mahathir. "I am not saying not to vote for the opposition, I am not saying they made a mistake in choosing Dr Mahathir, but I am still going to vote for them, because if you want change, you cannot have the current government."
Citing the example of Indonesia, which he called the only viable democracy in Southeast Asia, he explained that Indonesians voted in the late 1990s for the Golkar party but rejected former President BJ Habibie.
"Their democracy survived … to make a first step to choose a government of their choice. We have never made that first step because we have never changed anything. So yes, it is like swallowing glass, but what alternative do we have if we don't swallow this? We are going to be stuck with the same old, same old," said Azmi.
However, he conceded that there is no legal recourse to ensure the opposition keeps to their word should they win. "There isn't any democracy that I know of, which legally holds election candidates to their electoral promises. If there is, 99 percent of politicians will be in jail. The only possibility is to maintain constant pressure via civil society, the press and even direct action (demonstrations etc.) on the newly elected to keep their promises," Azmi told DW.
Mandeep Singh, a member of Bersih, a coalition of NGOs calling for clean and fair elections, also urged those advocating for vote-spoiling to campaign against Mahathir instead.
During an online talk show on Malaysiakini, Singh said, "Is this entire spoilt vote campaign just because of Mahathir? If that is the case, then what they should do is find out where Mahathir is standing for election and campaign all out (against him) there. Do not allow him to be prime minister."
Meanwhile, some campaign advocates have become targets of vitriol and bullying on cyberspace by Pakatan Harapan supporters and have been accused of being secret Barisan Nasional lackeys, using the campaign as a ploy to ensure the ruling party's win.
Maryam Lee, a 26-year-old activist who also faced sexist abuse, denied any involvement with Barisan Nasional, telling The Star newspaper that along with many #UndiRosak campaigners she was an opposition supporter and had volunteered and participated in rallies organized by Bersih and others for years. However, they now feel that the opposition had abandoned the principles it once stood for.
"To say #UndiRosak supporters - especially the young ones - are politically ignorant, is untrue. We have been involved with the opposition coalition's campaigns and we have seen how it has changed."
Meanwhile, thanks to social media, the campaign has also reportedly been gaining traction in the interior districts of the East Malaysian state of Sabah.
"We are not sure why this is happening, but a key reason may be that younger voters in these areas feel frustrated with the choices before them in this election," said an opposition youth leader. He admitted that the move to make Mahathir the leader of the opposition coalition was one of the reasons for the dissatisfaction among young Sabahans.
"We hope the voters will look beyond the leaders and think about the policies that we are offering."