COMMENT Fresh from a hard-fought battle to wrest control of Sarawak, the BN and Pakatan Rakyat must again slug it out in a high-stakes election for parliamentary seats, widely touted as the most competitive in Malaysian history.

NONEAs evident in the 2011 state election, much has changed in Sarawak since the general election in 2008, when the BN 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 percent of its parliamentary seats. 

But politics in these states, particularly Sarawak, have seen significant changes that might alter the balance of power at the federal level in the 13th general election (GE13).

This article analyses the changes that took place in the historic 2011 state election and their potential impact on GE13 in Sarawak. It will also examine 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 BN has 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 two-thirds majority in 2008, Sarawak remained its stronghold.

sarawak election supp dinner sibu 110411 cheeringBut the outcome of the 2011 state election suggests that the BN’s dominance over Sarawak has finally been broken. In that contest, Pakatan won 16 of the 71 seats.
Another indication that the ground had shifted was the significant decline of the BN’s popular vote from 64.2 percent in 2008 to 55.4 percent in 2011, a staggering decline of 8.8 percentage points.

With the exception of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, all Sarawak BN component parties suffered declines in their popular vote.
The Sarawak United People’s Party was the biggest casualty. The Chinese-dominated party lost 13 seats and suffered a decline of 6.2 percentage points in the popular vote.

The Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party lost two seats with a drop of 5.1 percentage points of the popular vote. Parti Rakyat Sarawak, failed to retain one of its nine seats, losing 1.2 percentage points of the popular vote.

NONEOn the Pakatan front, the biggest victor was the DAP, which secured 12 seats. Although there was a marginal decline (0.1 percentage points) in its popular vote, this was insignificant because the party already had a substantial share (20.2 percent) of the popular vote in 2008. 

Despite winning only three of the 49 seats that it contested, PKR still made a commendable showing by gaining 17.4 percent of the votes, 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.

Chinese revolt

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 the Muslim bumiputera elites led by Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. 

In the 2011 state election, the BN’s popular vote in Chinese majority seats dropped below 40 percent which represents a 12.9 percentage points decline from 2008.
Apart from Taib’s leadership, the Chinese rejected SUPP due to several issues such as the party’s failure to stand up against the chief minister, alleged corruption of BN leaders, and the ‘al-Kitab’ and ‘Allah’ rows.

azlanThe Sarawak Chinese revolt actually started in 2006 when the opposition managed to capture seven of the 15 Chinese-majority seats. The revolt was mainly confined to the Kuching Chinese as made evident by the opposition’s success in capturing four of the five Chinese-majority seats in the state capital. 

But the 2010 Sibu by-election which the DAP won, despite an electoral onslaught from the BN led by its head and premier Najib Abdul 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 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.

However, Muslim bumiputera voters 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).

Close battle

Although the outcome of the 2011 election showed that BN won comfortably by securing 55 of the 71 seats or almost 80 percent of the state seats, the contest was actually much closer than it appeared. 

NONEIn an unprecedented move, Najib himself had to lead the BN’s campaign since Taib was a liability, especially among the Chinese.
The former went on the stump over the last six days of the campaign period, the clearest sign that the BN was feeling the heat in its struggle to defend Sarawak. The whole federal cabinet and bureaucracy also campaigned

By exploiting the power of incumbency, the Najib-led campaign splashed at least 165 new projects worth RM2.8 billion and handed out at least 610 financial grants and other goodies worth RM15 million.
To highlight its development agenda, the BN organised at least 18 opening ceremonies of completed projects worth RM44 million and at least 13 ground-breaking ceremonies for projects worth RM229 million.

azlanSince many rural areas in Sarawak have long been deprived of development projects, the BN’s strategy of politicising development worked to its advantage. Many rural voters were cajoled to throw their support behind the coalition.

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 RM1,000 to RM2,000 was reportedly handed out to voters. In Saribas, 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, Baru 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. But although the winds of change are blowing in some parts of Sarawak, will these be strong enough to tip the balance of power at the federal level in GE13?

Tomorrow: All eyes on Sarawak in GE13

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