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No 'war of the poster boys' ahead of polling day

An analyst offers explanations for why the previously widespread use of leaders' pictures on campaign material appears much more muted this time.

Azzman Abdul Jamal & Nur Hasliza Mohd Salleh
3 minute read
A woman rides an e-scooter past a row of party flags at the Kampung Manjoi enclave in Tambun, Perak.
A woman rides an e-scooter past a row of party flags at the Kampung Manjoi enclave in Tambun, Perak.

In Malaysia, general elections are often preceded by what is known as the "war of the flags" – a period of time in which parties strive to put up the most campaign material, including flags, banners and posters. 

This election, though, while flags and billboards have gone up, one key aspect appears to be missing: the faces of coalition chairmen usually featured on candidate posters. 

Such pictures have become common practice, to the point where it is implied that the leader in question will become the prime minister if his party wins the polls.

But ahead of the 15th general election (GE15) on Nov 19, these "poster boy" images appear to be only infrequently used by Malaysia's main political coalitions: Barisan Nasional (BN), Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Perikatan Nasional (PN).

Here and there, pictures of PH chairman Anwar Ibrahim can be seen, while PN for its part has put up images of its chairman Muhyiddin Yassin in some areas. 

Generally speaking, however, the "war of the poster boys" appears much subdued. 

Political analyst Oh Ei Sun said each coalition might have its own reasons for taking such an approach. 

Oh, of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said BN, for example, might only drive prospective voters away if it featured the face of its chairman Ahmad Zahid Hamidi alongside those of its candidates. 

"And if the Umno candidate in question is young and charismatic and projects an image based on reforms, of course he would not want to be linked to Zahid," he added, describing such a move as a potential "vote killer". 

BN is currently struggling with internal polemics, with some claiming that Zahid will be chosen as prime minister over Ismail Sabri Yaakob if the coalition wins GE15.

Zahid himself has denied this, maintaining that Ismail is BN's "poster boy" and candidate for prime minister. 

He is also known for his role of leadership in the Umno court cluster, and is facing 47 charges of criminal breach of trust, corruption and money laundering linked to funds from charity foundation Yayasan Akalbudi.

Oh said the decision not to feature the face of the chairman or president on campaign posters was also an attempt to win the support of younger voters who have been described as lacking in party loyalty. 

These voters, especially those in the 18 to 20 age bracket, have been described as a "wild card" with analysts and political observers saying it will be difficult to predict which way they will swing. 

"The young voters will evaluate the candidate's qualifications and abilities over the party's performance," he said. 

"They have no loyalty to any party in particular." 

At the PN operations room in Sepang, election workers said they were concerned that young voters would not recognise the party's logo when they saw it on the ballot paper. 

"They might know Muhyiddin's face but not the logo," one of them said. 

"It's better for us to put up more flags and posters showing the party's logo. That's our approach to attracting the votes of those who will be casting their ballots for the first time." 

At a BN operations centre in Ampang, meanwhile, election workers said the candidates' faces should be given more prominence than those of the coalition's leaders. 

One of them said they would need permission at the central level if they wanted to use the face of the president or chairman in their campaign material. 

"It's quicker and easier to just use the BN logo," he said. "Then we don't need to wait for approval from the top." 

Nevertheless, Oh said that Sabah-based Warisan had maintained the tradition of featuring the president's face on campaign posters. 

He said Warisan might have decided to keep the practice as its leader Shafie Apdal was still popular among the people in Sabah. 

"It's up to each party whether to use the president's picture or not," he said. 

"But one thing is for sure: the strategy used at all of the elections before isn't as popular this time."