The election outcome in Sarawak and three other BN ‘fixed deposit’ states will decide whether BN remains at the federal level or PR creates history, writes Faisal S Hazis.
Fresh from a hard-fought battle to wrest control of Sarawak, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) and the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) have to once again slug it out in a high-stakes election, widely touted as the most competitive in Malaysian history.
As evident in the 2011 state elections, much has changed in Sarawak since the general election in 2008, when the ruling party made an almost clean sweep of the 31 parliamentary seats in the state. Back then, Sarawak and Sabah were instrumental in ensuring the BN’s continued grip of federal power by contributing almost 40 per cent of the ruling coalition’s parliamentary seats. But politics in the East Malaysian states particularly Sarawak has seen significant changes that might alter the balance of power at the federal level.
This article analyses the changes that took place in the historic 2011 state elections and their potential impact on the 13th general elections (GE) in Sarawak. Finally, this article examines whether the electoral shift in Sarawak is strong enough to bring about change at the federal level.
Since the infamous Ming-Court Affair that rocked Sarawak in the late 1980s, the ruling BN had not been seriously tested at the polls leading to its almost total dominance of both parliamentary and state elections. Even when the opposition made huge gains in the Peninsula by capturing five states and denying the BN’s traditional two-thirds majority in 2008, Sarawak remained a ruling party stronghold.
But the outcome of the 2011 state election suggests that the BN’s dominance over Sarawak has finally been broken. In that contest, the opposition won 16 out of 71 seats. Another indication that the ground had shifted was the significant decline of the BN’s popular vote from 64.2 per cent in 2008 to 55.4 per cent in 2011, a staggering decline of 8.8 percentage points.
With the exception of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), all Sarawak BN component parties suffered declines in their popular vote. The Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) was the biggest casualty. The ethnic Chinese-dominated party lost 13 seats and suffered a decline of 6.2 percentage points in the popular vote, while the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) lost two seats with a drop of 5.1 percentage points of the popular vote. Another Sarawak BN component party, Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), failed to retain one of its nine seats, losing 1.2 percentage points of the popular vote.
On the opposition front, the biggest victor was the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which secured 12 seats. Although there was a marginal decline (0.1 percentage points) in the DAP’s popular vote, the drop was insignificant because the party already had a substantial share (20.2 per cent) of the popular vote in 2008. Despite winning only three out of 49 seats that it contested, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) still made a commendable showing by gaining 17.4 percent vote, a huge nine percentage points increase from 2008. The rest of the opposition parties, however, failed to make any impact except for an independent candidate who won in the highly contested seat of Pelagus.
Clearly, the call for change came from Chinese voters who had had enough of strongman rule given the monopoly of Sarawak’s politics and economy by Muslim Bumiputera elites led by Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. In the 2011 state elections, the BN’s popular vote in Chinese majority seats dropped below 40 per cent which represents a 12.9 percentage points decline from 2008 (see Table 1.2). Apart from Taib’s leadership, the Chinese rejected SUPP due to several issues such as the party’s failure in standing up against the Chief Minister, alleged corruption of BN leaders, and the Al-Kitab and Allah rows.
The Sarawak Chinese’s revolt actually started in 2006 when the opposition managed to capture seven out of 15 Chinese majority seats. Back then, the revolt was mainly confined to the Kuching Chinese as made evident by the opposition’s success in capturing four out of five Chinese majority seats in Kuching. But the 2010 Sibu by-election which the DAP won despite an electoral onslaught from the BN led by Prime Minister Najib Razak signalled that the Chinese revolt had spread throughout the state.
Support for the BN also dropped significantly among Bumiputera voters especially the Iban (14.1 percentage point decline of the popular vote) and the Bidayuh (13.0 percentage point decline). While BN support among Malay/Melanau voters remained strong, there was a marginal decline of 3.8 percentage points of the popular vote.
Non-Muslim Bumiputera voters rejected the BN due to several pressing issues affecting them such as the alleged marginalisation of the community, NCR land conflicts, inequitable development, dam issues and the al-Kitab row.
Muslim Bumiputera voters, on the other hand, still supported the BN since they have long been dependent upon state patronage, are scared of losing Muslim Bumiputera political power at the state level, and display a cultural subservient attitude towards perentah (government).
Although the outcome of the 2011 election showed that BN won comfortably by securing 55 out of 71 seats or almost 80 per cent of the state seats, the contest was actually much closer than it appeared. In an unprecedented move, the Prime Minister himself had to lead the BN’s campaign since Taib was a liability for the ruling party especially among the Chinese. The former went on the stump for the BN in the last six days of the campaign period, the clearest sign that the ruling coalition was feeling the heat in its struggle to defend Sarawak. Along with Najib, the whole federal cabinet and bureaucracy campaigned for BN.
By exploiting the power of incumbency, the Najib-led campaign splashed at least 165 new projects worth RM2.8bn and handed out at least 610 financial grants and other goodies worth RM15 million (see Table 1.3). To highlight its development agenda, the ruling party organised at least 18 opening ceremonies of completed projects worth RM44m and at least 13 ground-breaking ceremonies for new projects worth RM229m.
Since many rural areas in Sarawak have long been deprived of development projects, the ruling party’s strategy of politicising development worked to its advantage. Many rural voters were cajoled to throw their support behind the BN due to the appeal of developmentalism perpetuated by the ruling party.
There were also numerous reports of vote-buying in areas where the BN faced stiff competition from the opposition. In the hotly contested seat of Ba’kelalan, where Sarawak PKR chief Baru Bian contested, between RM1000 to RM2000 was reportedly handed out to voters. In Saribas, on the other hand, the amount of cash distributed was rather small, RM20.
Generally, the practice of vote-buying has worked to the advantage of the perpetrators, but in the case of Ba’kelalan, the opposition candidate still managed to win despite BN’s underhand tactics. This suggests that nothing can stop change when the people’s desire for it is very strong. And yet, although the winds of change are already blowing in some parts of Sarawak, will they be strong enough to tip the balance of power at the federal level?
13th GE in Sarawak
All eyes will be on Sarawak in the coming general elections. With 31 parliamentary seats or 14 per cent of total parliamentary seats, Sarawak is a key state for both BN and PR en route to Putrajaya. In 2008, Sarawak BN contributed 30 seats or 21 per cent of the total parliamentary seats to the ruling coalition, enabling the BN to remain in power at the federal level. However, the opposition is set to make significant inroads in the 13th GE in Sarawak as evident by their strong showing in the 2011 state elections.
Inferring from the 2011 election results (votes from the state seats of Padungan and Pending which are under the parliamentary seat of Bandar Kuching are tallied to determine the popular vote received by the contesting parties in the constituency. This is repeated for all state seats under each of the 31 parliamentary seats in Sarawak), it looks like the opposition has a good chance of wresting at least five ethnic Chinese-majority parliamentary seats in which they recorded more than 50 per cent of the popular vote.
The opposition is expected to retain the parliamentary seat of Bandar Kuching, which was the only seat that it won in 2008, and snatch Stampin, Sarikei, Lanang and Miri from BN given many unresolved issues plaguing Chinese voters as mentioned earlier.
Another parliamentary seat that recorded more than 50 per cent vote for the opposition is the Iban-majority seat of Kapit. The main reason behind the vote swing in Kapit in 2011 (based on the results in the state seats of Pelagus and Katibas which are under the parliamentary seat of Kapit) was the role played by the influential politician-businessman Sng Chee Hua. Sng had backed the victorious Independent candidate for Pelagus, George Lagong.
A year after the 2011 elections, Sng together with his son Larry formed the Sarawak Workers Party (SWP), which soon publicly declared that it would be friendly to all BN component parties except PRS, a party that had sacked Larry and forced him out of BN politics. Given this personal vendetta, it was no surprise that SWP President Larry Sng announced that his party would contest in all PRS seats (i.e. Sri Aman, Lubok Antu, Julau, Kanowit, Selangau and Hulu Rejang) in the coming GE.
Kapit is not a seat the SWP will contest since it is a PBB seat. Previous election results suggest that Kapit is a PBB stronghold given its unopposed win on Nomination Day in the last two general elections. The last time Kapit saw a major contest was in the 1999 election, when the PBB trounced the opposition by polling 86 per cent vote. In the 13th GE, the PKR is expected to put up a candidate in Kapit but it is likely to be an uphill battle for the national opposition party.
Capturing five parliamentary seats in a state once touted to be the BN’s fixed deposit would be a huge feat for the opposition.
The tally could increase if the opposition made inroads in nine marginal parliamentary seats, i.e. Bintulu, Kanowit, Sibu, Saratok, Selangau, Mambong, Mas Gading, Baram and Julau (based on the 2011 state elections). More than half of these seats are Iban-majority seats while the rest are Bidayuh, Chinese and mixed seats.
The BN holds a slight advantage over these marginal seats, but it would easily retain them if the opposition failed to ensure straight fights. Three Iban-majority seats (Julau, Kanowit, Selangau) could see at least a three-corner fight among the BN, the PKR and the SWP. Mas Gading could pit the DAP, the PKR and the State Reform Party (Star) against one another. Another Bidayuh-majority seat, Mambong, is likely to see a three-corner fight among the BN, the DAP and the PKR. By contesting against one another in these seats, the opposition, which is fragmented into the Pakatan Rakyat component parties (the PKR, the DAP and Pas) and local opposition parties (Star and the SWP) are likely to split opposition votes and allow the BN to win.
Then again, the PKR has a strong presence among rural voters since it had consistently participated in Sarawak elections since 1999. Thus, new parties such as the SWP and a tired, dormant party like Star might not pose a serious challenge to the national opposition party. This was proven by the PKR’s ability to garner more votes compared to Snap and other Independent candidates in 25 overlapping seats in 2011.
But with the power of vote-buying, the SWP might just outdo other opposition parties and the BN (PRS) as seen when it successfully backed an Independent candidate in Pelagus in 2011. The SWP is likely to contest in six seats but is expected to spend heavily only in seats where their party heavyweights, i.e. Larry Sng, Wong Judat and George Lagong, are going to contest.
To date, the SWP has only announced that Wong Judat will be its candidate for Julau. Wong, the BN/SPDP State Assemblyman for Meluan (one of the two state seats in the Julau parliamentary seat) recently quit the SPDP so as to challenge Julau incumbent Joseph Salang. Since the SWP is a BN-friendly party, it is likely that the party would apply to join the BN if it manages to win a substantial number of seats in the 13th GE, even replacing the PRS in the Sarawak BN.
The other four marginal parliamentary seats (Saratok, Sibu, Bintulu and Baram) are likely to see straight fights with PR parties putting up a strong challenge against the BN. In Saratok, PKR’s giant killer Ali Biju will attempt to repeat his feat of winning the state seat of Krian (one of the two state seats in the Saratok parliamentary seat) by contesting against a yet-to-be-decided SPDP candidate. SPDP President William Mawan initially announced that Saratok incumbent Jelaing Mersat would seek re-election but the former nominated several other candidates not long after that.
This uncertainty and internal party crisis within the SPDP spells trouble for the BN in this rural seat. Ali could thus once again spring a surprise since the winds of change are already blowing in Saratok. Logging and NCR land issues are expected to take centre stage in the PKR’s campaign here while the BN will continue to trumpet its success in delivering development.
Sibu is another marginal parliamentary seat to watch in the 13th GE. In 2008, the BN succeeded in retaining Sibu by polling 53.4 per cent of the votes but it shockingly lost the seat to DAP in the 2010 by-election when it only managed to garner 49.8 per cent vote. The voting trend in Sibu (based on the 2011 results in Bawang Assan, Pelawan and Nangka which are under Sibu parliamentary seat) was again reversed in 2011 when the BN secured 50.4 per cent of the votes with the Iban and Malay voters contributing to the BN’s increased popularity.
The DAP has a good chance of retaining the seat but the Bumiputera votes and the SUPP’s influential and wealthy candidate, Temenggung Vincent Lau, could win the day for the BN. Furthermore, Sibu incumbent Wong Ho Leng’s shock announcement not to seek re-election due to health reasons has cast doubt over the opposition’s ability to defend Sibu. Such scenario makes the race in Sibu very interesting to watch.
Bintulu is another marginal parliamentary seat that could see a tough battle between the BN and the DAP. In 2011, the swing among the Chinese voters in the state seat of Kidurong (one of the three state seats in the Bintulu parliamentary seat) was so large that it drastically reduced the BN’s popular vote in Bintulu from 73.2 per cent in 2008 to 47 per cent in 2011. There were also a significant number of Iban voters who supported the opposition due to NCR land issues and the alleged marginalisation of the community.
But the BN has a formidable candidate in the person of Tiong Khing Sing, who is still popular and has huge resources to cajole the electorate especially the rural Ibans. Tiong’s reputation, however, had been tainted due to his involvement in Malaysia’s largest corruption scandal, PKFZ, thus making the contest in Bintulu much closer than it was in 2008, when the SPDP man secured 73.2 per cent vote.
Is the shift strong enough to elicit change at the federal level?
The BN is expected to retain most of the seats that it won in 2008. But the opposition is likely to make big inroads in the coming general election by winning five to nine seats for its biggest haul in the history of parliamentary elections in Sarawak since 1974.
Several critical factors, however, will determine the final outcome of the elections such as the opposition’s ability to ensure straight fights, the choice of candidates, the voting trend of first-time voters, the effectiveness of campaign machineries and electoral irregularities such as a dirty electoral roll, vote buying and phantom voters.
If the PR manages to capture five to nine parliamentary seats in Sarawak, it would be a significant gain to the opposition. But this would not be enough to elicit change at the federal level if the PR fails to make inroads in three other BN ‘fixed deposit’ states, i.e. Johor (26 seats), Sabah (25 seats) and Pahang (14 seats). Mathematically, if the PR manages to retain its 82 seats (including two seats in Pahang and one each in Sarawak, Johor and Sabah) that it won in 2008, the coalition needs to capture at least 30 more seats (from a total of 96 seats) from these four states. This will be a daunting task for the PR.
Still, many pre-election polls by Merdeka Centre, Universiti Malaya Centre for Democracy and Elections (UMCEDEL), Majlis Professor Negara and political parties indicate that the contest in the 13th GE will be a close one. The election outcome in Sarawak and three other BN ‘fixed deposit’ states will decide whether the BN remains at the federal level or the PR creates history as the new elected federal government.
Dr Faisal S Hazis, an Aliran member, recently published Domination and Contestation: Muslim Bumiputera Politics in Sarawak (2012). He lectures in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.