The upcoming Sarawak state election has grabbed our attention and the outcome could have far-reaching implications for both BN and Pakatan. Faizal S Hazis looks at the hot seats and wonders whether electoral dynamics will sway to the opposition or the BN.
In the run-up to the 10th Sarawak state elections, many political analysts have predicted that the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) will secure a two-third majority win (47 seats). It is likely that the coalition is set to lose more seats compared to 2006.
The BN and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leaders, on the other hand, have given two contrasting forecasts which of course depict their respective political bias. Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) president Dr George Chan believes that the ruling party will once again dominate the state elections including all 15 Chinese-majority seats, which are being touted to swing to the opposition. Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leaders, on the other hand, believe that they can topple the BN government by winning more than 40 seats despite the opposition parties’ overlapping seat claims. Which one will be the likely outcome of the forthcoming Sarawak elections?
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Psy-war versus facts
Obviously leaders from both political divides have been engaging in a psy-war to intimidate their opponents and boost the spirit of their supporters. As contending parties in the coming elections, both sides will not want to enter the fray with the mentality of a loser. So this brings us to the prediction made by political analysts who are either trained political scientists or self-proclaimed political observers. Observations made by these analysts seem to represent the general sentiment on the ground but they fail to take into consideration the electoral dynamics of the impending elections. This point will be further elaborated at the end of this article.
Sarawak has 71 state assembly seats comprising 27 Malay/Melanau seats, 20 Iban seats, 15 Chinese seats, 6 Bidayuh seats and 3 Orang Ulu seats. In the 2006 elections, the combined opposition managed to win nine seats of which three had a winning majority of less than 1000 votes (Kota Sentosa, Engkilili, Ngemah), two seats between 1001-2000 votes (Padungan, Kidurong), two seats between 3001-4000 votes (Batu Lintang, Meradong) and two seats between 4001-5000 votes (Pending, Bukit Assek). Most of the seats won by the opposition were Chinese seats while two of them were Iban seats (Engkilili, Ngemah).
Seats to watch
Chinese voter dissatisfaction is deep and could persist and spread to the northern part of Sarawak as indicated by the recent Sibu by-election and a recently concluded Merdeka Centre survey where only 21.5 percent of Chinese respondents indicated their support towards the BN. It is thus expected that the opposition will retain the seven Chinese seats that they won in 2006 and gain four more, namely Repok, Dudong, Pelawan and Pujut. All four of these seats except for Pujut were won by the BN with less than a 1000 vote-majority. By securing eleven out of fifteen Chinese seats, the opposition (especially DAP) would severely undermine the dominance of the ruling party and seriously question the future of SUPP.
In fact, given Chinese antipathy towards CM Abdul Taib Mahmud, it will be no surprise if the opposition grabs other Chinese seats with hitherto big winning margins in 2006; Batu Kawa (4180), Piasau (3918) and Senadin (4799). Long-standing issues such as Taib’s authoritarian rule, allegations of corruption and cronyism against BN leaders, land lease renewals, Chinese school education, the perceived marginalisation of the community and the state of the national economy will continue to feature in Chinese seats and ultimately influence their voting behavior.
In Iban constituencies, the opposition has a fighting chance in five seats (Engkilili, Ngemah, Batang Ai, Kemena, Pelagus). Two of them are currently held by former independents (Johnical Rayong Ngipa for Engkilili, Gabriel Adit Demong for Ngemah). Johnical, who initially contested under SNAP soon became a BN-friendly assembly member, after joining SUPP. Gabriel Adit formed a new opposition party, known as Parti Cinta Malaysia (PCM) after leaving PKR. These two Iban seats could easily swing back to the BN since the BN is expected to shower various development projects and money as inducements to lure rural Iban voters in these constituencies.
But the swelling dissatisfaction among Iban voters over their continued marginalisation and denial of property rights to NCR land could keep the two Iban seats in the opposition fold with possibly an additional three seats: Batang Ai, Kemena and Pelagus.
In 2006, the BN faced a stiff challenge in Batang Ai when its incumbent, Dublin Unting Ingkot faced off a popular opposition leader from SNAP, Nicholas Bawin Anggat (now with PKR). With the might of the BN machinery, Dublin only managed to scrape through with a small 806-vote majority. After Dublin passed away in 2009, the ruling party increased its majority to 1,854 votes in a by-election. This increase however, was largely due to sympathy votes that the new BN candidate received (due to the death of Dublin) and the numerous multi-million ringgit promises of development projects the BN splashed out during the by-election.
Batang Ai could thus pose a problem to the ruling party if the BN fails to deliver its promised total of RM75 million worth of projects that it pledged to the electorate in 2009 (The Star, 19 June 2009). Additionally, the prospect of Nicholas Bawin contesting again in Batang Ai in the forthcoming election also spells trouble for the ruling party.
Another problem seat for BN is Kemena. In the 2006 election, the ruling party won this seat with a relatively small majority of 1,572 votes. It is likely that the opposition will put up a strong fight for this constituency given growing dissatisfaction among voters towards the government over land issues. There are at least 10 land disputes alleging the state government’s seizure of peoples’ land by ‘handing them over to crony companies’ interested in cultivating oil palm and acacia (Tawie, 5 January 2011).
Vicious infighting within Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) over its potential candidate in Pelagus, could also pry another Iban seat away from the ruling party. The controversial seat is presently held by Larry Sng who first contested the seat in 2001 on a PBDS ticket (now deregistered) when he replaced his father, Sng Chee Hua. He stood on a PRS ticket in May 2006 but was expelled from the party in 2007 following an internal leadership crisis, which saw the party split into two factions with him leading a rival faction (Borneo Post, 28 January 2011, p.1). Despite being partyless, Larry was retained as State Assistant Minister in the Chief Minister’s Department, much to the despair and irritation of PRS President, Dr James Masing.
Replacing an out-of-favour incumbent with a new candidate is normal practice among political parties during elections. Hence, it would not normally lead to any party’s downfall. Larry Sng, however, is no ordinary incumbent. He is from an influential family that has the financial muscle and human resources to mobilise enough support to challenge the BN in Pelagus.
The schism between PRS and another minor Iban party within the BN, the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP), could also cost the ruling coalition a few Dayak seats including Pelagus. According to the PRS president, the party would win all nine seats allocated to it provided other BN component parties did not sabotage it (Tawie, 25 January 2011). Given current inter-BN tensions, this is not unlikely.
In the Bidayuh seats, the opposition could deny the BN a clean sweep by taking possibly two seats, Kedup and Bengoh, which have a relatively small vote majority; 1981 votes and 3988 votes respectively. In 2006, Kedup surprised the BN when the ruling coalition’s winning majority crashed from 7016 votes (2001) to a mere 1981 votes. The growing unhappiness of Kedup voters towards its five-term assembly member, Frederick Bayoi Manggie, would likely contribute to the downfall of the BN in this Bidayuh constituency, if Frederick is picked to stand again as the BN candidate.
In Bengoh, the unhappiness of the electorate towards the incumbent, Dr Jerip Susil, could likely sway a significant number of Bidayuh voters away from the ruling coalition. His critics argue that the two-term assemblyman has not brought in any substantial development projects and seldom visits his constituency (Fernandez, 22 September 2010).
On top of that, electorate anger over the controversial Bengoh dam in the area would likely see the ruling party fail to retain this Bidayuh seat. The completed dam should already be impounded but for the refusal of 1500 people from four villagers to relocate. The possible backlash from the impoundment has since forced the government to postpone the relocation exercise indefinitely (Tawie, 12 December 2010).
Still, it is difficult to gauge the sentiment of Bidayuh voters who have consistently supported the ruling party especially after the neutralisation of a popular Bidayuh opposition leader, Dr Patau Rubis. Although his dormant State Reform Party (STAR) is not a member of the ruling coalition, he has campaigned for BN in recent elections. Opposition attempts to capture Bidayuh-majority seats could thus prove difficult. But the fact that the community has a tendency of supporting respected opposition candidates suggests that Bidayuh seats are far from safe.
Two out of three Orang Ulu seats are considered black seats with the Prime Minister and his Deputy making regular and frequent pre-election visits to pledge numerous development projects in order to cajole the Orang Ulu electorate into backing the BN. The BN only managed to cling on to Belaga and Ba’kelalan in 2006 with slim majorities of 227 and 475 votes respectively. Belaga is where the highly controversial Bakun dam is located. Started in the early 1980s, the hydroelectric project affected about 15000 people from 15 communities who were relocated (Malaysian Democracy 1998).
Although the ruling party has successfully confronted previous backlashes from Belaga voters by continuously winning the seat since 1983, the recent controversial impoundment of the dam could likely re-ignite electorate discontent. The impoundment, which began in October 2010, is expected to last for eight months. It has significantly reduced the water levels of the Rejang River and its tributaries, creating havoc to riverine communications and problems for its peoples (New Straits Times, 25 October 2010).
Sensing the fragility of Belaga, the Prime Minister made a pre-election visit there in January 2011 when he dished out RM100 million worth of development projects (Sarawak Tribune, 18 January 2011). On top of that, PM Najib announced that the government would write off the remaining RM41 million housing loan involving 1500 families at the Sungai Asap Resettlement Scheme (Free Malaysia Today, 17 January 2011). This act of rampant vote-buying just shows how insecure the ruling party is in Belaga.
Ba’kelalan is another Orang Ulu hot seat that shall likely fall to the opposition in the coming state election mainly due to voter dissatisfaction. The BN incumbent, Nelson Balang Rining, has been severely criticised for not servicing his constituency. Apart from that, the popularity of Baru Bian, the PKR candidate and de facto leader of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat Sarawak coalition, among Ba’kelalan voters is another factor that shall likely sway the seat in favour of the opposition. In the 2006 elections, Baru was able to put up a commendable challenge when he lost to Nelson by only 475 votes. BN leaders are so concerned about losing Ba’kelalan that a parade of federal leaders including the Prime Minister and his Deputy have visited the remote constituency to pledge various new development projects as inducements to the electorate.
In the Malay/Melanau constituencies however, the BN is expected to regain lost ground by consolidating its dominance over the electorate including in the three seats (Sadong Jaya, Beting Maro, Saribas) that the ruling party almost lost in 2006 (858-vote majority, 895-vote majority and 94-vote majority respectively). The Chief Minister is expected to replace the incumbents in these seats (Wan Wahab Wan Senusi in Sadong Jaya, Bolhassan Di in Beting Maro and Wahbi Junaidi in Saribas) since voters are seriously disenchanted with them. Voters allege they had failed to bring development projects and that they had taken away peoples’ lands to give to private companies for oil palm plantations.
By replacing the BN incumbents in these hot seats, the ruling party could easily win back the support of Muslim Bumiputera voters.
It is also expected that the BN will dish out instant projects in these constituencies to win over voters’ support. The opposition, however, could stage an upset provided it fields respectable candidates, carries out a persuasive campaign and mobilises its supporters during polling day.
If the opposition wins even one Malay/Melanau seat in the coming state election, this will be a big blow to the PBB, especially the chief minister, as the opposition has not won any Malay/Melanau seat since 1987.
Generally regarded as staunch supporters of the ruling party, the majority of the Muslim Bumiputera electorate are expected to continue supporting the BN especially under the leadership of PBB Muslim Bumiputera leaders given their deep powers of patronage. The issue of Taib’s leadership, alleged corruption by state leaders, Malay/Melanau schisms, lack of development in rural areas, land titles and a host of other local issues could also feature in the Muslim Bumiputera seats, but it is doubtful that those issues will continue to be a serious challenge to the ruling party’s dominance.
Unless there is no mass movement aimed at inciting discontent amongst the Dayaks against the government over their perceived marginalisation and denial of rights to NCR land, the opposition could possibly win a maximum of 20 seats (11 Chinese, 5 Iban, two Orang Ulu, one Bidayuh, one Malay/Melanau) which are four seats short of denying the BN a two-thirds majority.
This ambitious prediction depends on various factors such as candidate selection, the strength of the opposition’s campaign machinery, voter turnout, issues that arise during the campaign period, the ability of the opposition (including independents) to ensure one-to-one fights, the solidarity of component parties within BN, vote-buying, political intimidation and the weather on polling day.
Another key factor shall be the 60,000 new voters who will be actively courted by the BN and PR. These electoral dynamics which many political analysts tend to overlook shall ultimately determine the actual outcome of the elections. Without taking into consideration electoral dynamics, political analysts could end up making incorrect predictions as was the case with 8 March 2008.
So what happens if electoral dynamics sway to the advantage of the opposition in line with their leaders’ predictions? To unseat the BN, the opposition has a mammoth task ahead. They need to win at least 36 seats to form a simple majority. But based on the current trend of party-hopping among some opposition elected representatives, a simple majority win is not considered enough to tilt the balance of power in this big state.
The opposition coalition has to aim for at least 40 seats to really have a realistic chance of forming the new government. For this to happen, the opposition cannot rely on the 15 Chinese seats only. They have to secure more Iban and Malay/Melanau seats (possibly 13 Iban and 10 Malay/Melanau seats) plus two Orang Ulu and three Bidayuh seats, bringing a total of 43 seats.
In short, any wind of change should not only blow within the Chinese and Iban seats but also through the rest of Sarawak’s electorate. Issues like Taib’s leadership, NCR land, provisional land leases, corruption, margina-lisation of the natives, use of the word, Allah, by the churches and a host of other local issues seem to have currency only among the Chinese and a small number of Dayak and Orang Ulu electorate.
Malay/Melanau voters on the other hand, look set to maintain the status quo despite general dissatisfaction towards the ruling party’s development policies and an increasing appeal towards new politics. Failure of Pakatan Rakyat to convince the Malay/Melanau electorate of the superiority of their political message would thus only hamper the opposition’s dream of unseating the BN. This would ultimately stall their plan to win more parliamentary seats in Sarawak in order to capture Putrajaya.
So, will electoral dynamics in the 10th Sarawak state elections sway to the advantage of the opposition or the BN? Only time will tell.
Dr Faisal S Hazis is a Sarawakian academic based in a local public university.