PKR succeeds against all odds

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The party has made inroads in Sarawak; it now faces new challenges in building up the state-level Pakatan coalition, writes Andrew Aeria.

PKR press conference after Sarawak elections announced


BN’s bloodied nose

By the time the electoral dust had settled late on 16 April, it was clear that despite Barisan Nasional (BN) having thrown even the proverbial kitchen sink at the Sarawak Pakatan Rakyat (PR/Pakatan) opposition coalition, it won only 55 out of 71 seats. The opposition secured 15 seats (DAP – 12; PKR – 3) with a BN-friendly independent taking one.

The BN’s share of the popular vote slumped 7.7 percentage points from 62.93 per cent to 55.24 per cent. If there was a consolation prize for the BN, it was that the lynchpin of the Sarawak BN, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) led by Chief Minister (CM) Abdul Taib Mahmud, managed to win all the 35 seats it contested. Still, it only did so with a reduced share of the popular vote (2006 – 29 per cent; 2011 – 28.66 per cent), meaning that even PBB is slipping.

Still, PBB’s performance was cold comfort for Prime Minister Abdul Najib Razak who had uncharacteristically camped out in Sarawak with his whole federal cabinet throughout the campaign’s duration.

Clear tensions and cracks within the BN campaign were evident in the contradictory public statements between the CM and PM about when exactly the former would step down from office given the serious allegations of abuse of power and corruption against him. CM Abdul Taib Mahmud’s hasty late night swearing-in – even before all the results were announced – was thus a dead giveaway of deep tensions and mistrust between state and federal BN leaders.

Hence, whatever spin the grovelling mainstream media put on it, the BN got a bloodied nose. Not only were the results a disappointment, they were downright disruptive to the BN’s not-so-secret plans to hold snap federal elections.

But the real loser of the whole election was Najib. For the first time, the hitherto local flavour of Sarawak’s state elections was nationalised by the PM’s ‘1Malaysia’ and ‘Economic Transformation Programme’ (ETP) that he highlighted in an attempt to divert electoral attention away from Taib’s alleged misdemeanours.

Painfully for Najib, his campaign failed. What he got instead was a vote of no-confidence in his government’s 1Malaysia policy outlook and ETP. It also highlighted the BN’s continued inability to fulfil its commitments to the rule of law and international standards of good governance in the face of powerful regional warlords.

Clearly, Najib made a grave error of judgment in attempting to use the April state elections to unseat Taib. It remains to be seen whether (or rather when) Najib will be made to pay for this grave political miscalculation.

BN’s dirty campaign

In keeping with its current ethos, the BN ran an unabashedly dirty campaign against the PR coalition, and especially against Parti Keadilan Rakyat since PKR, being a genuinely multi-ethnic party, poses the greatest threat to the supremacist politics of Umno and the BN.

Significantly, the BN did not rely on the party machineries of its coalition members (i.e. PBB, SUPP, PRS or SPDP) to run its election campaign. In fact, very little of any BN party machinery was even seen let alone involved in this campaign. Instead, the BN simply ‘utilised’ (i.e. abused) federal and state government resources in their campaign. The BN’s 4Ms -. the official media, public money, civil service machinery and muscle (i.e. intimidation, both subtle and overt) – were blatantly deployed in the campaign.

The mainstream media campaigned for the BN while Bernama, the State Information Department and the Home Ministry handled BN public relations and management of the media. From over a year ago, public resources were already deployed by the state government via its Sejiwa Senada (SS) programme to campaign for the BN. This SS road show, which travelled through every division in the state, aimed at bridging the supposed communication divide between the state government and the people by showcasing the PM’s 1Malaysia slogan of ‘Rakyat Didahulukan, Pencapaian Diutamakan’. But in fact, the SS programme was nothing more than electioneering before the elections.

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Not to be outdone, other agencies like the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry also got into the act. They distributed tens of thousands of bags of organic fertiliser free to rural farmers. All the bags came clearly emblazoned with a blue and white dacing symbol – as if to remind all recipients that this generous farm input assistance was a gratuitous BN handout that had to be reciprocated during elections. Similarly active in rural areas throughout the election campaign were numerous other government agencies like the education department, JKR, District Offices, Kemas, Jasa and Tekun.

Under the guise of benevolent government allocations, there were the usual ‘politics of development’ announcements and distribution of billions of ringgit in ‘instant noodles’ infrastructure projects, rumah mesra rakyat, program bantuan rumah, flat upgrading allocations, new hospitals, rural basic infrastructure projects, new roads and upgrading works, rural electricity supply, flood mitigation projects, resettlement funds, new bridges, more consumer cooperatives, agriculture subsidies, transportation subsidies, poverty eradication programmes, poverty alleviation welfare transfers, free Rela uniforms and boots, free 4G broadband, free Astro decoders and TV sets, mission school allocations, boat licences, land grants, land titles, TOL leases, pre-school education assistance, free dinners, song and dance entertainment, gifts of tupperware, new university, new community college, prefabricated suraus, 1Azam Home Managers Programme, etc. to secure voter support in favour of the BN.

And if that was insufficient, there was also the more insidious overt direct cash handouts of public funds. Stunningly, even the Registrar of Societies reportedly handed out RM10000 cheques to various civil society groups throughout Sarawak during the election campaign “for their contribution to social development” (The Star, 15 April 2011). If the Malaysian Insider (16 April 2011) is to be believed, even well-known government-linked companies like ‘Maybank, Utusan Malaysia, New Straits Times, PDRM, EC, Pos Malaysia, AirAsia, etc.’ were also involved in supporting the BN throughout the campaign. Indeed, the same report estimates that the BN spent a cool RM500m in this election campaign!

Grey cash handouts also occurred just before Election Day with the Malaysian Insider (16 April 2011) alleging that identity cards were going for RM1000 in Miri. As well, the Sibu Election Watch alleged that SUPP was involved in vote-buying by paying RM500 to voters (Malaysiakini, 27 April 2011), while a bounced cheque of RM5000 given to a headman in Tamin (Sarawak Report, 20 April 2011), and RM300 offered to a Ba’kelalan voter attested to the widespread use of cash by the BN as electoral inducements (Malaysiakini, 30 April 2011). Other anecdotal evidence also suggests that cash was distributed to voters throughout the length and breadth of Sarawak to influence the polls. In Tupong constituency, one influential person received a cheque of RM15000. Voters in Kg Atas, Singai, Bau received RM30 on polling day. In Sungai Baron, Sarikei, voters were given RM100 on the night before polling day. In Muara Tuang, Samarahan, voters received RM10 as a handout after a ceramah. Little surprise then that PKR alleged that BN won votes by using notes (Malaysian Insider, 27 April 2011). These reports were undoubtedly, only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Of course, there was also the sordid sex video released in KL by ‘Datuk T’ to coincide with the elections. This video was widely viewed on iPads in rural areas during the elections. But there were also other despicable, disgusting, perverse and libellous posters and flyers (many without any printer or publisher identification), which were put up and distributed by unidentified people. All these posters and flyers were deliberately designed to malign and smear PR leaders in an effort to undermine electoral support for PR.

Even the internet was not spared. Massive and sustained DDOS attacks were launched by vaporous cyber-terrorists against popular internet media sites like Sarawak Report, Malaysiakini, Harakah Daily and Merdeka Review while TM Streamyx inexplicably suffered sporadic interruptions of service throughout parts of Sarawak on polling day itself. Without doubt, the objective of all these attacks and disruptions was to deny the electorate access to alternative non-mainstream news.

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Of course, the Elections Commission, true to its ‘high standards of professionalism’ and commitment to being ‘efficient and transparent’, did not notice anything irregular about this ‘model’ election (The Star, 23 March 2011).

And yet, against all these odds, PR – and especially PKR – made significant gains.

Pakatan’s impressive gains

Although PR failed to take over the government or break the two-thirds majority of the BN in the state assembly as it had hoped, it nonetheless made impressive gains.

Running in 15 constituencies, the DAP won 20 per cent of the popular vote increasing its share by 5.14 percentage points (14.86 per cent from 12 seats in 2006). PKR, running in 49 constituencies won 17.4 per cent of the popular vote, increasing its share by 8.81 percentage points (8.4 per cent from 25 seats in 2006). Pas contested five constituencies and secured 1.44 per cent of the popular vote, increasing its share by 1.14 percentage points (0.3 per cent from a single seat in 2006). Overall, the total popular vote won by PR (excluding Snap) increased by 15.1 percentage points to 38.9 per cent (23.8 per cent in 2006). Given the BN’s onslaught against PR, these were remarkable gains; one that would have been even more striking had the election been free and fair, which of course, it was not. (See Table below – click to enlarge.)

Ultimately, PR’s success boiled down to organisation and preparation. The DAP ran an extremely slick, coherent and organised campaign, complete with a ragingly popular soft-toy mascot, Ubah, to lead its charge. Their speakers were all well informed and highly entertaining. They commanded huge ceramahs and collected large donations to fund their campaign. Their posters and billboards were spot on and noticeable everywhere. Similarly smooth on the ceramah-trail were Pas speakers like Kelantan MB Nik Aziz Nik Mat and Perak MB Mohamad Nizar Jamaluddin. Pas also flew in many party workers from the peninsular in waves to assist the rural campaign of their five candidates. They were tightly organised and moved systematically in their rural constituencies on a house-to-house, village-to-village campaign. But the real contrast relative to previous campaigns was seen most clearly in PKR.

PKR’s coherent campaign

Compared to previous efforts, Sarawak PKR ran an impressively coherent campaign during this election. This coherence was amplified given the meagre human and financial resources at their disposal. Numerous party branches were set up throughout the state over the last one year with many party talks and functions organised to popularise PKR and to spread its political struggle especially among the rural population. Strikingly, as the elections drew near, Sarawak PKR even organised a few training workshops for all their potential candidates so as to better prepare them for the election campaign. PKR’s national leadership also came over to Sarawak many times to assist them in their overall campaign preparations. And importantly, Sarawak PKR had a small local media/strategy team to help organise their electoral campaign and party website.

The party also received implicit support when various local indigenous NGOs concerned with native customary rights (NCR) land, poverty and rural development issues used the elections to educate the rural electorate about the importance of voting for parties that would address these concerns. These NGOs collectively invested in the mass production of CDs and YouTube video clips and flyers of the same – which they distributed widely throughout the state – that serendipitously supported the party’s Sarawak campaign. As well, Sarawak PKR received support from various reform-minded international media like that of Sarawak Report and Radio Free Sarawak.

Additionally, more experienced PKR MPs and Aduns from the peninsular were paired up with local candidates to work with and assist them in their campaigns between nomination and polling. This was a very empowering strategy for many local candidates who had enthusiasm but not necessarily campaigning expertise or experience. There was also good information collaboration between PKR’s central office and that of Sarawak in the production of various campaign brochures. And during the campaign, seamless overall coordination was provided by the presence of a youthful but well-oiled PKR coordinating team from KL that worked closely with the small Kuching media/strategy coordinating team.

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Campaign weaknesses

Unfortunately, despite their best plans and preparations, Sarawak PKR’s campaign did not bear expected fruit, primarily due to the BN’s overwhelming onslaught. However, some internal weaknesses of the Sarawak PR coalition and PKR also affected the campaign.

Seat negotiations among Pakatan coalition members were difficult and resolved very late. An eleventh hour PKR-DAP seat swap decision resulted in the dropping of the Padungan PKR incumbent. Worse, moribund Snap did not seem genuinely keen on strengthening the coalition. Instead, they undermined it via their untenable seat demands. Consequently, Snap-PKR seat negotiations failed, resulting in damaging multi-cornered contests.

Additionally, each coalition partner contested their select seats with little regard for coalition solidarity and the pooling of campaign resources. Once a party was allocated a seat, it was very much left to its own organisational devices. This proved debilitating when PKR contested 49 seats (to deny the BN any nomination day walkover) with little burden-sharing from its coalition partners.

Also, insufficient cooperation among Pakatan partners was perceived. Specifically, finalisation of the common Sarawak PR manifesto was puzzlingly left till after nomination day. Given the brevity of the election campaign, many PKR candidates were unable to deploy its contents effectively in their local campaigns.

Internally, factionalism within PKR affected their campaign as well since it drained much electoral energy. Consequently, many constituencies were insufficiently organised and individual campaigns lacked preparation. Contrastingly, PKR’s success in Ba’kelalan, Batu Lintang and Krian reflected campaign machinery that was very well organised on the ground. Furthermore, their candidates were well known locally. Crucial preparatory electoral work and the selection of local party workers were undertaken and completed early on by the prospective candidates. Even Telang Usan and Senadin, which PKR lost narrowly, were relatively well organised.

Finally, despite their best efforts, Sarawak PKR was unable to raise sufficient funds for the election campaign in a state where elections are prohibitively expensive. Accordingly, the ground campaign of many individual candidates floundered dysfunctionally.

Challenges going forward

Still, it cannot be denied that PKR made major inroads in this Sarawak election. Going forward, it now faces a new set of challenges if it is to play a major role in building up the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, deepening democracy and establishing a viable two-party system in the state.

Key is the internal management of factionalism within the party. Ignoring the problem is not a solution. Instead, PKR needs to manage factionalism head-on and build compromises that will assist its progress forward. As well, PKR needs to make firm long-term commitments to ongoing renewal. Functioning branches need to be established (or revived) to conduct ongoing voter education and to disseminate PKR’s political views. Committed, locally-based and preferably more youthful and professionally qualified members need to be recruited for these purposes. Local fundraising also needs to be built into this renewal process of the party.

Finally, understanding, cooperation, trust and effective working relations within the Sarawak Pakatan Rakyat coalition needs to be developed. After all, it is the nature of coalition politics that there should always be differences and difficulties to be managed. With visionary leadership and sufficient commitment to shared purpose, Sarawak Pakatan coalition policy would speak with one voice, and for the people.

Andrew Aeria works in a local public university and is an Aliran exco member.

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