Monday, April 18, 2011

Malaysian politics - Squawk from Sarawak

MALAYSIA’S largest state, a north-western strip of Borneo, the island it shares with Indonesia and Brunei, went to the polls on Saturday, April 16th. This was its tenth election since Sarawak—or Bumi Kenyalang, the "Land of Hornbills"—gained its independence from Britain and joined peninsular Malaysia, and it was almost certainly its most closely scrutinised. For this poll had a much wider, national significance.

The prime minister, Najib Abdul Razak, wants to call a general election later this year, well before it’s required, in order to win a personal mandate for his economic reform programme. The Sarawak election was deemed in advance to be an important political weather-vane; Mr Najib’s ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN), draws about one-fifth of its MPs in the national parliament from the state. Mr Najib himself was out and about on the hustings throughout the campaign.

In the end it was very much a mixed bag, with both heartening and disappointing results for all sides—but it will certainly be enough to give Mr Najib reason to pause for thought before rushing towards snap election.

On the face of it, Mr Najib’s ruling coalition did well. The BN won 55 of the 71 seats on offer in the local parliament, maintaining its two-thirds majority. Yet this represented a dip of about 8% in its support; in 2006 it won 63 seats, and that was considered to be pretty poor in a state where the BN had got used to winning 90% of the seats. The BN comfortably dominated in the rural areas, its traditional heartland, but then it seems to have done badly in the ethnic-Chinese urban seats.

The main opposition Chinese party, the DAP, pretty well cleaned up, winning 12 seats, while the BN’ s ethnic-Chinese counterpart lost 13 of the 19 seats it contested.

This should certainly set alarm bells ringing in the BN’s national headquarters. In the complex and fragile world of Malaysian ethnic politics, the Chinese—the country’s largest minority—comprise an indispensable constituency. The BN is largely an ethnic-Malay coalition (Malays being the majority population in the country, though not in Sarawak), but it needs the support of a certain percentage of the Chinese vote to govern nationally—in exchange for which the Malay parties have to reflect Chinese voters’ concerns, to a degree. A collapse in the Chinese vote, of the sort that the BN has just experienced in Sarawak, were it to be repeated at the national level, could jeopardise Mr Najib’s dreams of taking a thumping majority at a general election, such as to endorse his reform programme. His team will need to look closely at why the ethnic-Chinese vote went so heavily against them.

Yet neither were the results a triumph for the opposition. The DAP may have done well, but the national opposition’s coalition party, the PKR, suffered a withering blow. Its local party won only 3 seats. More and more it looks as if Anwar Ibrahim and his party are losing credibility as the veteran leader’s sodomy trial drags on through the courts.

So although Mr Najib will have much to ponder after Sarawak, the result did not give much cheer to Mr Anwar either. Then again, all politics being local politics, both men may take heart in the fact that Sarawak, with its 44% multi-ethnic mixture of indigenous Dayak or Orang Ulu voters, is a unique entity in Malaysian politics—how else to account for the re-election, yet again, of its chief minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud?

He got another five years, to tack on to the 30-odd years he has already run the state. This despite his being assailed from all sides for well-documented charges of corruption and embezzlement, all of which he denies. He just sails on regardless: a captain who knows his ship. Mr Abdul Taib has promised to retire before the next election. Whether he keeps the helm or passes it on, he can be counted on to give us further reason to turn back to Sarawak in due course.

(Picture credit: Sarawak's own coat of arms) The Economist

1 comment:

  1. Expectations of change

    THE first result of the 10th Sarawak state election was announced at 6.15pm on Saturday. By the end of the night, Barisan Nasional had won 55 seats to retain control of the state legislature with a comfortable three-quarters majority. Though the Democratic Action Party doubled its representation from six to 12 and Parti Keadilan Rakyat added two more to its single seat, these were not major surprises. The opposition inroads in Chinese and urban constituencies and among the middle class and young voters in the previous polls were signs that pointed to further electoral gains for the contesting parties this time around. The fact that issues such as the tenure in office of the incumbent chief minister and the effectiveness of Sarawak United Peoples' Party (SUPP) in representing Chinese interests, which contributed to the drop in support for BN in 2006, were still potent campaign fodder was another portent of a potential swing towards the opposition.
    In this most hard fought of Sarawak elections, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had campaigned tirelessly, galvanising voters and boosting the chances of the BN candidates. But there is no question that the issues were state issues and the concerns were local, from native customary rights land to the personalities of candidates. Though the state BN has a clear margin of victory and a strong mandate to govern, with the opposition emerging as an even stronger player in the state and willing no doubt to use its greater share of state seats to build support for the next general election, there is a great need to take stock.

    Having suffered the biggest losses, SUPP, in particular, will need to rejuvenate and regroup. Otherwise, the oldest party in the state could suffer the misfortune of the Chinese-based parties in the peninsula, or that of Sarawak National Party, which used to be a core party, in government and in opposition, but which now looks to be on the road to oblivion. As much as the other component parties in BN have won all or most of the seats they contested, they, too, have to take note of the changes in voting patterns and the expectations for changes in governance. There is a need to develop new approaches beyond the politics of development to appeal to the more demanding, sophisticated, younger and urban voters. Above all, the loyalty of supporters in the BN strongholds in the rural hinterland should not be taken for granted. The promises of development must be delivered.