Sensational campaign, predictable result, unclear lessons: The 10th Sarawak state elections

Posted on | april 20, 2011 | No Comments

On April 16th the east Malaysian state of Sarawak went to the polls for the 10th time since Sarawak joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. In many ways Sarawak is very different from other states in Malaysia. Of a population of just over 2.5 million, Malays (the dominant ethnic group in Malaysia as a whole) constitute a little over 21 per cent, with Chinese comprising between 27-29 per cent. The rest of the state’s population consist of 27 different ethnic groups of which the Iban, constituting 31 per cent of the total population, are the largest.

In addition Sarawak is not only home to the largest number of Christians in Malaysia (in a country where Islam dominates social and political life), but where Christians constitute the largest segment of the population (around 43 per cent). Separated from peninsular Malaysia by 370 miles Sarawak had a very different colonial history to the peninsular and economically despite a wealth of natural resources the state remains one of Malaysia’s poorest states. However despite the array of Sarawak specific political parties the politics of Sarawak have largely conformed to the pattern in Malaysia as a whole. In other words component parties of the governing Barisan Nasional (principally the PBB) have held power in the state since 1963 with Abdul Taib bin Muhamad of the presiding as the state’s Chief Minister since 1981.

For all the opposition’s aim of denying the BN its two-thirds majority in the state legislature, the result of the election was never in doubt. Instead the election campaign itself became a) a proxy for the continuing struggle between Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition and the BN leadership b) a test of support for the premiership of Najib Tun Razak in order to determine whether the country’s 12th general election will be held this year or next and c) a test of whether the Pakatan Rakyat could take its brand of a multi-ethnic alternative to the BN beyond peninsular Malaysia. Sarawak matters because as a result of deliberate malportionment the state returns 31 seats of the country’s 222 seats in parliament, approximately 14 more than it would if constituencies were equally. In the 2008 general election while the Barisan Nasional suffered its worst election result since 1969, Sarawak delivered the coalition 30 seats of its total haul of 140. Indeed with the seats won in neighboring Sabah (24) many commentators concluded that the results from East Malaysia kept the Barisan Nasional in power. Thus the Sarawak state elections served were seen as a bell weather that could determine if the Barisan Nasional had recovered sufficiently to call an early snap general election.

The campaign was lively to say the least with the country’s anti-corruption commission (MACC) admonished for failing to take any action against Chief Minister Taib over the acquisition of over 1.5 million hectares of Native Customary Rights land for his relatives and supporters. These revelations came two months a Swiss NGO (The Bruno Manser Fund) had early revealed a massive timber corruption scheme that involved kickbacks to the Taib family. The report blacklisted 49 Taib-linked companies in 8 countries. In addition according to a separate report by the opposition Democratic Action Party Taib had also failed to account for $1.5 billion of Sarawak state funds between 2007-2010.

The Barisan Nasional countered with their own claim that they had discovered a sex tape involving opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Already on trial for a second time for alleged sodomy (homosexual sex is illegal in Malaysia), pro-government newspapers broke the story that a sex tape had been ‘found’ in a Kuala Lumpur hotel room on February 29th purportedly showing Anwar engaged in sexual activity with a ‘fair-skinned’ woman. As both sides threw proverbial mud at each other Prime Minister Najib decided to campaign actively himself in Sarawak promising Chinese voters in Kotah Sentoh blatantly proclaiming that “If you vote for BN, Sarawak will develop faster”. UMNO also wielded the full weight of its media dominance to ensure that support for the Barisan in the state would hold up to the opposition challenge.

The results when they came proved mixed for both the ruling coalition and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat. Declaring it would deny the Barisan its two-thirds majority the opposition only managed to capture 21 per cent of the state’s seats. While Anwar’s own party in the opposition coalition (Partai Keadilan Rakyat, PKR) fared quite badly, winning only three of the 48 seats it contested, the largely chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) did extraordinarily well captured 20 per cent of the vote (placing it second behind the PBB) doubling the number of seats it won from six to twelve. Furthermore having only contested 15 seats in total the DAP’s strike rate was particularly impressive. On the government side while pro-Barisan parties won 77 per cent of the seats, this represented a loss of eight seats compared to 2006. Furthermore the BN’s vote share was down 6.5 per cent to only 55 per cent of the total vote.

So what can we conclude from the Sarawak elections? Well assuming that the state’s elections are indeed a bell-weather and not a reflection of local issues, it would appear that neither the opposition or the governing coalition have made any substantial progress in either winning over or winning back the electorate respectively. Despite the high profile campaigning of Prime Minister Najib the BN’s vote was still down on 2006, but equally neither PKR or PAS (the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party) were able to establish themselves in East Malaysia (PAS failed to win any seats and captured only 1.4 per cent of the vote). The fact that the BN’s vote share was only down six per cent was neither a ringing endorsement for Najib nor a decline significant enough to undermine his authority. What it will likely ensure is that Najib replaces Taib as Chief Minister sooner, rather than later lest he become a liability in the next general election. As to that election, I would speculate that after this vote an early election (within the next 6 months) is now less likely than it was before. What the election does demonstrate conclusively is that the next general election campaign when it does come will be dominated by more sensationalism, scandal and sleaze.

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
E-MAIL: [at]


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