Swing states to decide Malaysian polls
By Anil Netto
PENANG - When voters head to the polls this Sunday in Malaysia, the hotly contested race could very well be decided in Sabah and Sarawak, potential swing states on the island of Borneo. While Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has traditionally carried the areas, there are indications that the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) could this time make significant electoral gains.
Of parliament's 222 seats, 25 are allocated to Sabah and 31 to Sarawak, together representing about one-quarter of the federal legislature. PR won five of 13 federal states at the 2008 general
election, denying BN and its main component United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) party its coveted two-thirds majority in parliament. PR is nominally led by former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, who is campaigning on a clean governance platform after close to six decades of consecutive UMNO-led rule.
Opposition parties won only two seats - one each in Sabah and Sarawak - out of the 56 up for grabs in the two states at the 2008 polls. The other 54 were won by BN, providing an electoral cushion in its overall 140-82 parliamentary seat win. This time, opposition parties predict they will make significant inroads in Sabah and Sarawak, long regarded as "fixed deposits" of BN support, along with the peninsular states of Johor and Pahang.
Sarawak and Sabah are both rich in offshore oil, but the wealth from those deposits has not reached the grass roots population, especially for those situated in the two states' underdeveloped interior. Sabah has the highest poverty rate in the country, while many Sarawak residents are restless after losing huge tracts of ancestral land to big BN-backed infrastructure projects and politically associated logging and plantation companies.
In Sarawak, the ruling coalition is led by Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, who has held the post for 32 consecutive years. Taib has ruled the state with a velvet fist and his family's corporate interests have over the years come to dominate many local business sectors. Profits from those businesses have been plowed into a budding property empire abroad, including significant holdings in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia.
Alleged corruption and abuse of power under Taib's rule was exposed in an investigative video made by UK-based environmental watchdog Global Witness. In the film, a Global Witness investigator posed as a foreign investor interested in buying multi-million dollar tracts of land in Sarawak and was allegedly referred to Taib's cousins for negotiations that were secretly filmed.
Related lawyers later advised the investigator how to evade property taxes, circumvent domestic shareholding regulations and launder money in neighboring Singapore in apparently shady deals. Taib's family members and their lawyers have denied any wrongdoing.
While the online video created a stir among activists and journalists, its impact will likely be limited on the upcoming polls, as rural areas in Sarawak have limited access to the Internet. But radio web portal Radio Free Sarawak and related website Sarawak Report have likely had a greater impact on Taib's local standing. The two United Kingdom-based outfits were hit by an unexplained massive distributed denial of service attack on April 11 that caused their sites to crash for several days.
Taib faces a determined challenge from the three opposition parties that form the PR coalition, namely the People's Justice Party led by opposition icon Anwar, the multi-ethnic Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Both coalitions are contesting all 31 of Sarawak's parliamentary seats. Thirteen candidates from other small parties and seven independent candidates will result in a string of three- or four-cornered contests across the state.
Support for BN has gradually eroded. In the 2011 Sarawak state-level election, PR opposition parties bagged 39% of the popular vote, up from the 29% they garnered at the 2008 election. The result saw PR up its seat tally from seven to 15 in the 71-seat state assembly, breaking BN's monopoly over the elected body. While Taib's party won all of the seats it contested, its local coalition partner, the Sarawak United People's Party, lost five seats to the DAP in mostly urban areas.
The opposition is playing up alleged corruption in Taib's administration, which, together with extensive links to logging, plantation and dam-building interests, has resulted in huge tracts of rainforest being cleared in the once verdant state.
Mass displacement of the native population for BN-backed projects and poor economic returns a state-run plantation development agency in which locals have stakes has eroded local support for BN's "politics of developmentalism" in the state. As a result, some political analysts believe that PR could win seven to nine parliamentary seats in Sarawak, especially in urban areas and a few rural seats known to be disaffected with BN's policies.
The electoral landscape in Sabah is more complicated as multi-cornered contests are expected across the state. Both BN and PR will contest all 25 seats. Another local coalition, the United Borneo Front, is campaigning on the rights of the North Borneo states and will put forward 29 candidates under a couple of regional parties, namely the State Reform Party (21 candidates) and the Sabah People's Progressive Party (eight candidates).
Another party, Kita, is fielding a single candidate, while 15 independents area also in the running. Some political analysts believe that multi-candidate contests will split opposition votes and work to BN's advantage.
While Najib's local popularity runs high - the Merdeka Center polling agency recently indicated he enjoys a more than 70% approval rating in the state - the same cannot be said of BN's Sabah representatives. Many Sabahans are known to be irked by the hundreds of thousands of foreigners, most from the neighboring Philippines and Indonesia, who since the 1980s have received citizenship or other resident status in apparent exchange for their electoral support.
The BN-led immigration drive was recently exposed by witnesses in an ongoing royal commission of inquiry launched following the recent intrusion by gunman into the state from the nearby Philippine archipelago of Sulu. The government's initial hesitant response to the incursion and the subsequent postponement of the inquiry in the run-up to the polls has done little to inspire confidence among many Sabahans.
Statistics show that Sabah has seen the highest population growth rate in the country, with recent immigrants now representing close to 30% of its population. The multi-ethnic state's traditional main group, known as the Kadazan-Dusun, now constitutes 18% of the population, down from 32% in 1960. As a result of BN Islamization policies and the mass influx of migrants from neighboring Islamic areas, the state's Muslim population had risen to 65% in 2010 from 38% in 1960.
In many of the Kadazan-Dusun areas, there is a palpable sense that the once-major community has been marginalized and is now ready for a political change, says Sabah-based political analyst Arnold Puyok. "They complain they are being dominated by Sabah UMNO and that there is a lack of representation in the federal and state civil service. They feel they are no longer the majority."
In urban areas in Sabah with a significant number of ethnic Chinese, there is also discontent in business circles about the monopolies enjoyed by those with close connections to the ruling elite, says Puyok. "It is not on a level playing field."
Local parties are trying to capitalize on a degree of grass roots resentment over the domination of peninsula-based parties, whether from the BN or the PR, and the erosion of both states' status within the wider Malaysian federation. They have put forward a "Borneo Agenda" to push for a revival of the special rights accorded to Sabah and Sarawak when they came together with Malaya and Singapore to form Malaysia in 1963. (Singapore left two years later).
According to this agenda, Sabah and Sarawak should as co-founders of the nation be allowed more autonomy than the other 11 states based in the peninsula. Votes for the two Sabah-based opposition parties could erode support that otherwise would have gone to PR.
Political analyst Puyok estimates that PR could win five or six out of Sabah's total 25 parliamentary seats. Taken together with Sarawak, PR could take 10 to 13 seats more than the two it currently holds in the two states.
If PR is able to make parallel inroads in BN strongholds such as Pahang, where some analysts reckon it could win an additional four seats, and Johor, where as many as nine BN seats look vulnerable, suddenly the 112 seats needed for a simple parliamentary majority could be within reach, putting Malaysia on the verge of a political transformation.
Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.
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