COMMENT All eyes will be on Sarawak in the coming general election. With 31 parliamentary seats or 14 percent of the total number, it is a key state for both BN and Pakatan Rakyat en route to Putrajaya.

azlanIn 2008, Sarawak BN contributed 30 seats, or 21 percent, of the total parliamentary seats to the BN, enabling it to remain in power at the federal level. However, Pakatan looks set to make significant inroads in the 13th general election (GE13) in Sarawak, as evident in its strong showing in the 2011 state election.

(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.)

Drawing an inference from this, it looks like Pakatan has a good chance of wresting at least five Chinese-majority parliamentary seats in which it recorded more than 50 percent of the popular vote.

Pakatan is expected to retain Bandar Kuching, the only seat that it won in 2008, as well as snatch Stampin, Sarikei, Lanang and Miri, given many unresolved issues plaguing Chinese voters.

Another constituency that recorded more than 50 percent support for the opposition is the Iban-majority seat of Kapit. The main reason for the vote swing 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 of influential politician-businessman Sng Chee Hua, who backed George Lagong, the victorious Independent candidate for Pelagus.

larry sngA year later, Sng and his son Larry (right) formed the Sarawak Workers Party (SWP), which soon declared that it would be friendly to all BN component parties except Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), which had sacked Larry and forced him out of BN politics. Given this personal vendetta, it was no surprise that Larry announced that his party would contest in all PRS seats - Sri Aman, Lubok Antu, Julau, Kanowit, Selangau and Hulu Rejang - in GE13.

Kapit is not a seat the SWP will contest since it is a Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (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 1999 when the PBB trounced the opposition by polling 86 percent of the vote. In GE13, PKR is expected to field a candidate in Kapit but is likely to face an uphill battle.

Capturing five parliamentary seats in a state once touted to be the BN's fixed deposit would be a huge feat for the opposition.

Tussle for marginal seats

The tally could increase if the opposition makes inroads in nine marginal parliamentary seats - Bintulu, Kanowit, Sibu, Saratok, Selangau, Mambong, Mas Gading, Baram and Julau (based on the 2011 state election). More than half of these seats are Iban-majority seats while the rest are Bidayuh, Chinese and mixed seats.

NONEThe BN holds a slight advantage, but would easily retain these seats if Pakatan fails to ensure a straight fight. Three Iban-majority seats (Julau, Kanowit, Selangau) could see at least a three-corner fight among the BN, PKR and the SWP. Mas Gading could pit the DAP, PKR and the State Reform Party (Star) against each other.

Another Bidayuh-majority seat, Mambong, is likely to see a three-corner fight among the BN, the DAP and PKR. By contesting against one another, the opposition, which is fragmented into the Pakatan component parties (PKR, DAP and PAS) and local opposition parties (Star and SWP) are likely to split the opposition vote and allow the BN to win.

Then again, PKR has a strong presence among rural voters since it has consistently participated in Sarawak elections since 1999. Thus, new parties such as the SWP and a tired, dormant one like Star might not pose a serious challenge to PKR. 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.

NONEBut with the power of vote-buying, SWP might just outdo other opposition parties and the BN (PRS), as seen when it successfully backed an Independent candidate in Pelagus in 2011. SWP is likely to contest in six seats but is expected to spend heavily only in seats where its heavyweights - Larry, Wong Judat and Lagong - contest.

To date, the SWP has only announced that Wong will be its candidate for Julau. Wong, the BN state assemblyperson for Meluan (one of two state seats in the Julau parliamentary constituency) had quit the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) so as to challenge Julau incumbent Joseph Salang.

Since the SWP is a BN-friendly party, it is likely that the party will apply to join the BN if it wins a substantial number of seats in GE13, even replacing the PRS in Sarawak BN.

azlanThe other four marginal parliamentary seats - Saratok, Sibu, Bintulu and Baram - are likely to see straight fights with Pakatan 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 PKR's campaign here while the BN will continue to trumpet its success in delivering development.

Hot seats to watch
azlanSibu is another marginal parliamentary seat to watch in GE13. In 2008, the BN succeeded in retaining Sibu by polling 53.4 percent of the vote but it shockingly lost the seat to DAP in the 2010 by-election when it only managed to garner 49.8 percent. The voting trend in Sibu (based on the 2011 state election results in Bawang Assan, Pelawan and Nangka which are under Sibu parliamentary seat) was again reversed in 2011 when the BN secured 50.4 percent of the vote 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 a 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 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 percent in 2008 to 47 percent 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.

NONEBut the BN has a formidable candidate in the person of Tiong Khing Sing (right), 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 alleged 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 percent 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 GE13 by winning five to nine seats for its biggest haul in the history of parliamentary elections in Sarawak since 1974.

Several critical factors will determine the final outcome of the election 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 Pakatan captures five to nine parliamentary seats in Sarawak, it would be a significant gain, but would not be enough to elicit change at the federal level if it fails to make inroads in three other BN ‘fixed deposit' states - Johor (26 seats), Sabah (25 seats) and Pahang (14 seats).

azlanMathematically, if Pakatan retains its 82 seats (including two 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 (out of 96) from these four states. This will be a daunting task.

Still, many pre-election polls by Merdeka Centre, Universiti Malaya Centre for Democracy and Elections, Majlis Professor Negara and political parties indicate that the contest in GE13 will be a close one.

The outcome in Sarawak and three other BN ‘fixed deposit' states will decide whether the BN remains at the federal level or Pakatan creates history to become the new elected federal government.

Yesterday: Contest for Putrajaya: Battleground Sarawak

DR FAISAL S HAZIS, a member of social reform movement Aliran, wrote ‘Domination and Contestation: Muslim Bumiputera Politics in Sarawak (2012)'. He lectures at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. This article was first posted on the Aliran website.

~ Malaysiakini