Scholars are finding it harder to predict what is next for Malaysian politics. The once familiar script for political change, employed since 1998 when Anwar Ibrahim was ousted from the ruling regime – institutional failure, corruption, cronyism, abuse of the judiciary – got stood on its head when the man claimed by the opposition to be responsible for the many wrongs in Malaysia’s politics, Mahathir Mohammed, became head of the oppositional alliance, the Pakatan Harapan (PH).

At 92, does Mahathir have enough left in him to defeat Najib?

Given the confusing political climate, on what basis will Malaysians vote in the coming general election? There are several permutations but voters could largely follow three broad considerations.

Spoil my vote

The current confusion has led many, particularly young voters, to retaliate against mainstream politics. A growing movement is urging people to purposely invalidate their votes by spoiling ballot papers. Growing campaigns such as #undiRosak (spoilt votes) and #ProtesPRU (#GEProtest) are worrying political parties. They are headed by disgruntled youths, many born in the 1990s, who grew up exposed to a heavy dose of oppositional politics when organised protests were commonplace.

Unhappy to have Mahathir as the only choice on the side of the opposition, coupled with recent revelations of less-than-perfect performances in opposition-led states in Selangor and Penang, youth voters have only grown more disillusioned, tired of political rhetoric and theatrics. In their eyes, leaders from both sides of the political divide have lost the moral authority to lead.

Politics is personal

Another block of voters are willing to cross party lines to vote for someone they relate to primarily on ethnic or religious grounds.

For many years, political reform in Malaysia has centred around one man, Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the opposition between 2008 and 2015. His bruised eye suffered during an arrest in 1998 has been a symbol of mass mobilisation. It is this personification of Anwar as a political victim that was instrumental in the opposition clinching victories in the 2008 and 2013 general elections.

Mahathir is also taking a leaf out of Anwar’s book. He is using his record of 22 years as prime minister to woo largely rural, Malay and older voters. For those who have spent their working years under Mahathir’s rule – especially retired civil servants – there is still a deep sense of gratitude for the man who turned Malaysia into one of the world’s most vibrant economies.

But Mahathir is not the only big personality in politics. Wan Saiful Wan Jan, the chief executive officer of Malaysia’s think tank Ideas, and Maria Chin Abdullah, the chairwoman of Bersih, a pro-democracy movement, have taken off their non-partisan hats and joined oppositional politics. With them on board, the PH is hoping that voters could be convinced to choose the opposition camp.

In Malaysia, politics is highly tied to ethnicity and religion. For some voters, their choice of either the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) or the Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) is clear; it is based on a highly personalised and emotive view of a candidate’s cultural background. Mahathir Mohamad, Hadi Awang, Anwar Ibrahim, Najib Abdul Razak, Lim Guan Eng and Lim Kit Siang have strong followers. These names are themselves good enough reasons for their followers to vote for their respective parties regardless of scandals.

Economy watchers

Another voting bloc, a mixed group of mainly middle-class Malaysians, takes a more pragmatic approach to politics. They consider the economy as the key factor when casting their vote. Political lethargy and the unceasing political rhetoric could also be another reason for this group to focus more on fiscal concerns.

For the record, the Malaysian economy is not doing too badly. The economy registered a strong 5.9 per cent growth in 2017, and Malaysia’s total exports increased nearly 19 per cent from a year earlier, the highest growth since 2005. Fiscal discipline has been maintained. Malaysia’s fiscal deficit has declined steadily from a high of 6.9 per cent in 2009 to about 3.1 per cent of the GDP.

What’s behind Malaysia’s election apathy?

Consumption has continued to prop up the economy. Foreign funds are also flowing back. Since the start of the year, the average value of foreign funds has stood above 1 billion Malaysian ringgit (US$256 million). The ringgit is also seeing a rebound. It is now trading at 3.89 to the US dollar, a sharp improvement from a low of 4.49 to the greenback in January 2017. There are also large infrastructure projects on the way that will foster more economic growth. The East Coast Railway Line that will link the east and west coast of the Peninsula, the massive Pan Borneo highway that will connect the southernmost tip of Sarawak to the easternmost city in Sabah, the construction of the second phase of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and the proposed MRT circle line for Kuala Lumpur are all projects that could prove to be game changing.

The state is also handing out economic goodies. It is putting cash back into people’s pockets to help ease the cost of living and address the ongoing concerns on the goods and services tax. For the fifth straight year, the state is continuing its direct transfer programme. This year, 7 million Malaysians stand to receive up to 1,200 ringgit that will cost the state some 6.8 billion ringgit. The state is also releasing more disposable income to households by reducing personal income tax and abolishing toll charges on four highways. It has also enhanced its workfare scheme (called Skim Latihan 1 Malaysia, or SL1M). The 40 million ringgit scheme will retrain some 25,000 graduates to address youth unemployment.

But there are still pockets of economic concern. The issue of urban poor, inadequate and unaffordable housing and high household debt are hot button issues. The scandal surrounding the state investment fund, 1MDB still weighs on voters. The impact of the three-year-old investment controversy, however, could be muted, since it has seemed to drag on without conclusion. Also, the issue is not well understood, especially among rural voters. A poll conducted in 2015 by the Merdeka Centre to gauge public knowledge of 1MDB show that most Malaysians, almost 70 per cent, “do not very much know” or “do not know at all” about the saga.

A more nuanced election

The coming election could see a more sophisticated Malaysian electorate. Issues of race and religion will surface. However, with both PH and Barisan Nasional having a consociational (power sharing) arrangement, given the plurality of their component parties, it is likely that elites will stay away from excessive stirring of ethnic and religious considerations. This is a positive for Malaysian politics. While voters could either spoil their votes or cast ballots based on loyalty alone, economic and more pragmatic considerations could prove to be a deciding factor in determining the electoral outcome. If that is the case, the timing of the election in the coming months could be ripe for the ruling regime.

Abdillah Noh is a visiting research fellow at Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy, Murdoch University. He is also an associate professor at the Tun Abdul Razak School of Government, Universiti Tun Abdul Razak