Monday, May 9, 2016

Sarawak electoral win may come back to haunt BN


Norshahril Saat

May 8, 2016

The ruling Barisan Nasional’s landslide win in the Sarawak State Elections on Saturday is a morale boost for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been under pressure over troubled state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and donations worth US$680 million (S$920 million) in his personal bank account. BN secured 72 out of the 82 seats contested and saw its popular vote increased to 63.72 per cent from the 55.4 percent it obtained in 2011.

Mr Najib was quick to announce that the victory manifests the public’s trust in BN’s power-sharing mechanism at the state and federal levels and the coalition’s ability to fulfil promises.

There are many factors behind BN’s victory: from the popularity of Chief Minister Adenan Satem to gerrymandering that favours the ruling coalition and fragmentation of the opposition.

The opposition was unable to repeat its good showing in the 2011 state elections where it secured 41.23 percent of popular votes in a state many described as BN’s stronghold.

There are two lessons to be drawn from the election: one, issues concerning Peninsular Malaysians do not necessarily have an impact on East Malaysians; and two, there is a stark contrast between ethnic politics in the Peninsular and that in Sarawak.

To be sure, BN’s victory in Sarawak could also be a bane for the federal government. Now, Sarawakians can assume the role of a ‘king-maker’ in federal politics, especially when support for BN is low in the Peninsular. Moreover, this victory could only strengthen the belief of Sarawak ‘exceptionalism,’ and the federal government has to address the state’s request for greater autonomy.

Analysts have pointed to the popularity of Mr Adenan as the primary factor which led to BN’s success. In 2011, BN’s poor performance was mainly due to Sarawakians’ unhappiness with then Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, whose three-decade control of the state had been dogged by controversies. This allowed the opposition Democratic Action Party to garner support from Chinese voters to win 12 seats out of 71 seats. In this election, the party could only retain seven seats out of 82. Chinese votes have been fragmented, with some swinging over in support of BN and Mr Adenan. Divisions within the opposition at the national level also played out in Sarawak. For instance, there were several seats which saw three-corner fights between BN, DAP and the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).


For certain, BN’s victory in Sarawak means its “fix-deposit” or sure-win status remains intact. So crucial is this victory that the federal government has one less issue to focus on. Nonetheless, this is by no means a guarantee that BN can retain power at the federal level. The mood in Peninsular Malaysia remains hostile to the government, even as the 1MDB issue is still being resolved.

The government has to address public unhappiness over rising cost of living resulting from the Goods and Service Tax. Although unlikely, the opposition could still pose a threat to the government.

Furthermore, this victory for BN Sarawak is by no means a blessing for the coalition. In Malaysian political history, a huge electoral victory could be a bane after all. In 2004, BN secured its largest ever electoral victory by winning almost 90 per cent of parliamentary seats in federal parliament. Four years later, it suffered one of the worsts electoral performance, losing control of five states to the opposition. Similarly, with BN’s victory in Sarawak this time, there is a lot of hope for the Adenan government to carry out reforms. What will be more troubling for the federal government is the greater call for Sarawak exceptionalism. Campaigns such as ‘Sarawak for Sarawakians’ could potentially pit the state government against the federal government. Running on a highly populist campaign could pose problems for the state government, especially if it cannot deliver its promises. So fluid is Sarawak politics that some coalition parties could switch allegiance to the opposition.

So far Mr Adenan has been successful in lobbying for greater Sarawak autonomy, such as establishing English to become the state’s official language of administration alongside Bahasa Malaysia. He also gained the trust of Chinese voters by dispelling the notion that they are immigrants (pendatang). But more issues could crop up in the next two years: such as more revenue from oil, greater recognition for Chinese schools, and the rise of Islamisation. It would be a challenge for the federal government to accede to all the demands made by Sarawak politicians, including more seats in the Cabinet.


Dr Norshahril Saat is Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He researches on Indonesia and Malaysia politics.

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