Politics and Policy: Tide of change faces Sarawak polls test

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 14, 2019 - January 20, 2019.
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IN the new Malaysian landscape that emerged from the 14th general election (GE14), Sarawak is one of the last vestiges of the Barisan Nasional era that ended last May.

The battle lines are now drawn for Sarawak's 12th state election (SSE12), which must be held before Sept 7, 2021.

The coalition ruling the state was formerly part of the Barisan Nasional (BN) but soon after BN lost federal power, it rebranded itself as Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS). With the shock defeat of BN at the national level, the four-party coalition finds itself governing a federal opposition state. The state opposition, on its part, is getting used to having the support of the federal government for the first time.

Last week, GPS unveiled its new logo. On Jan 19, it will officially launch its rebranded alliance and subsequently go on a roadshow to explain its political message to voters.

The clock is already ticking. GE14 results held tell-tale signs that voters are getting restless with the status quo. Pakatan Harapan (PH) had won an unprecedented 12 parliamentary seats, doubling its previous tally.

A closer look at the six parliamentary seats PH gained show that some saw voter margins swing by as much as 46 percentage points.

Crucially, these six parliamentary districts contain 14 state assembly (DUN) seats among them, of which 13 are held by GPS incumbents. Therefore, the visibly eroding support means these seats may be vulnerable in the coming elections.

GPS also saw a major erosion of support in at least seven parliamentary seats that it successfully defended in GE14, with upwards of 10 percentage points lost compared to GE13 in 2013. These seven districts contain 19 DUN seats, all held by GPS.

Nevertheless, winning these DUN seats would not be easy for PH. GPS is defending a comfortable supermajority in the DUN, having swept 72 out of 82 seats in the 2016 state elections (SSE11).

That said, the momentum may be against the incumbents. Comparing vote tallies from GE14 and the state election in 2016, 96,000 additional voters went to the poll booths, says See Chee How, Sarawak Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leader and Batu Lintang assemblyman.

“The votes for state BN (now GPS) were largely unchanged but the additional votes all went to PH,” See tells The Edge.

 

Dayaks the kingmakers

The key battlegrounds remain divided along communal lines and the areas of focus are clear. For GPS, it needs to consolidate its hold over the Malay/Melanau votes while winning the hearts of the non-Muslim bumiputera races — loosely termed Dayaks — that make up the majority in the state.

“The swing seats are the Dayak seats, especially the Iban-majority seats. The Bidayuh and Chinese are mostly leaning towards PH while the Malay-majority seats are still with PBB for now,” remarks Prof James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania in Australia.

Much of the erosion among non-Malay support for GPS in recent years can be attributed to the cloud of controversy over Taib’s 33-year rule as chief minister as well as the perception that political power is not shared equally among the major races.

Ibans form the single largest race in Sarawak, making up 30.3% of the population. The next largest are the Malays (24.4%) and Chinese (24.2%), followed by Bidayuhs (8.4%), Orang Ulu (6.7%), Melanau (5.4%) and others.

Since 1970, Sarawak has seen two Melanau chief ministers over a 44-year period, followed by two Malay chief ministers in the last five years.

The simmering resentment has led to the increasing rejection of PBB’s partners within GPS. Today, PBB is the backbone of GPS with 46 of the coalition’s 72 DUN seats, effectively being able to form a simple-majority government on its own.

In terms of parliamentary representation, PBB has 13 seats. Other GPS members collectively have six — Parti Rakyat Sarawak (3), Sarawak United Peoples Party (1) and Progressive Democratic Party (2).

PBB is made up of a Malay-Melanau Bumiputera wing that holds about two-thirds of its DUN seats, with the rest held by its Pesaka wing, consisting of Iban and Bidayuh members.

As for Sarawak PH, its key challenge is to gain traction with Malay and Melanau voters who traditionally stand with PBB. Its biggest problem is that it lacks Malay leaders of stature among its top ranks.

While PKR and, to a lesser extent, DAP do have lower-ranked Malay leaders, these reinforce the insecurities among the Malay voters that their interests would not be sufficiently advanced under PH’s rule.

“Malay/Melanau majority seats make up over a third of the total seats and as such hold decisive power in the balance of who wins government,” comments Bridget Welsh, associate professor of political science at the John Cabot University.

Apart from making up sizeable voting populations in many mixed seats in semi-urban areas, Malays and Melanaus have also held political power, Welsh adds. “They would be seen to be displaced if there is inadequate inclusion in PH Sarawak.”

 

Will PBB break?

A key question ahead of the coming state elections is whether the current GPS leadership is strong enough to rally the support it needs to win. While PBB remains strong, the support for its GPS allies is seen to have been decimated in recent years. That would be an issue when the time comes to decide who contests what seats.

Datuk Abdul Karim Hamzah, PBB vice-president, acknowledges to The Edge that for GPS to retain power, PBB cannot be the only party that performs well.

That said, it is important that PBB plays fair with its other GPS colleagues, he stresses.

“Definitely, there may be some unhappiness about seat allocations later because as it is, some of the PBB DUN seats used to be held by other GPS component parties,” says Karim.

“But at the end of the day, when the parties sit down on the seat distribution, I strongly believe they will come to a consensus that the winnability of the candidate is more important,” he adds.

That is not to say that PBB itself is not under threat. Notably, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) had recently entered Sarawak and is seen as trying to chip away at PBB’s Malay and Melanau base.

The biggest hurdle there is again the lack of a local Malay face at the state Bersatu leadership.

Already, the state PKR and DAP are frequently derided as minions of their peninsular-based top party leaders. Therefore, the logical move for Bersatu would be to entice a cross-over of well-recognised faces from PBB.

“A defection (from PBB) is likely as we get closer to SSE12,” opines Chin.

When posed the question, PBB information chief Datuk Idris Buang acknowledges that there is some threat from Bersatu as a member of the federal ruling PH coalition. However, he strongly feels that the core support base of PBB remains strong and steadfast.

Idris also lambasted the criticism that Abang Johari’s leadership is weak and Malay-centric as “baseless and unfair propaganda”. Citing a long list of initiatives, he adds that the chief minister’s performance should be judged from the success of his various drives.

“I am very confident that with the present tenacity being shown, in less than two years, the voting public will see more of what our Chief Minister has accomplished in all his efforts and initiatives.”

 

‘Throwing the money’

Leading up to the next state polls, the key factors remain state nationalism and infrastructure development, says Chin.

The growing state nationalism, encapsulated in a joint push for a return of eroded Sarawak rights under the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), had led to both sides banding together against the federal government at times.

State nationalism aside, the importance of infrastructure was also not lost on Sarawak PH.

In a previous interview with The Edge, Sarawak PKR chairman Baru Bian, who is also federal Works Minister, revealed that the portfolio was specifically requested by Sarawak PH.

“When we met Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad after the general election, we indicated to him that if there is any portfolio given to any one of us from Sarawak, we'd appreciate it if it is the Works portfolio,” said Baru.

Politically, it is a critical portfolio as it could be used to deliver roads and other development into rural Sarawak areas. However, the problem remains that in many cases, delivering these projects requires a cooperative state government.

Also noteworthy is that state PH leaders are sometimes undercut by their federal partners. For example, in Budget 2019, Sarawak’s development allocation was only increased by RM10 million to RM4.346 billion — a clear message that federal PH would only do more for Sarawak if it rules the state.

In turn, that was seized upon by some GPS leaders as an indication that only Sarawak-based parties would truly care for the welfare of its people — a longstanding narrative.

These considerations, alongside about RM30 billion in state reserves, give the upper hand to the incumbent state government. And GPS’ political positioning post-GE14 has pivoted towards more rural infrastructure development.

Last November, Abang Johari announced an RM11.914 billion state budget for 2019, the highest so far, while still expecting an RM122 million surplus. Of the total figure, 76% has been earmarked for development projects.

When push comes to shove, the race may well come down to “who has the best narrative on MA63 plus who can throw the most money in the most effective way”,  according to Chin.

 

 

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