April 15, 2011
Final Countdown to Sarawak 2011 Elections
by Bridget Welsh*
COMMENT: The last day of the campaign has started and for the past few days, it has been ratcheted up to fever pitch on both sides.
Larger crowds in the towns for the opposition have coincided with extensive, almost frenzied, visits by BN cabinet ministers far and wide throughout the state.’
Make no mistake about this – the stakes are high. This is a campaign that has national implications as BN’s hold on power is at stake. A loss of the two-thirds majority in Sarawak was unthinkable less than 10 days ago, and now the focus centres around this important marker.
It has been made clear that Sarawakians have the power to set the political direction for the country.
Three decisive groups
The situation on the ground remains very fluid with an unprecedented undecided voters, especially among the state’s largest group, the Dayak.
The range of possible outcomes moves from a minimum of 10 seats for the opposition to a maximum of 32, on the heels of a change in government. The reason for this wide range lies with the high degree of unknowns and the small swing needed to change results in tight seats.
The most important unknown is the impact of financial rewards, anger over land grabbing and religious freedom. The fate of Sarawak’s polls lies with all the communities, but especially the Dayaks.
The Orang Ulu, Bidayuh and Iban have more political power in this contest than they had had since the days of Stephen Kalong Ningkan and Tawi Sli Tini in the 1960s. And given the number of seats that have a large share of Dayak voters, over 30, they will determine the final outcome.
Ethnically, the other groups that will shape the margin of results is the Malay community, where fear and the racial card of possible displacement have played out in this campaign. The parallel has been made to Perak, where the BN has suggested that a vote for the opposition will be a vote for a non-Malay and DAP leadership.
Yet at the same time, they are asking the Malays to vote for a minority bumiputera chief minister, who it is claimed will not be able to hold Sarawak’s diverse groups together. Political displacement and instability have been touted in a not-so-subtle manner and conflicting manners as issues of corruption and livelihoods have received less priority.
It would seem that these messages of fear have been successful, but there is another unknown, the impact of the messenger. The campaign has been led by Najib Razak from peninsular Malaysia, and unlike the collaboration with locals that has been the pattern in the opposition, there is more unease.
Semenanjung leaders have sat in front of state leaders at meetings, and been portrayed more favourably in the campaign posters, causing the local Malays and Melanau to lose face. Many Malay Sarawakians feel a sense of displacement from UMNO and Najib’s leadership, and with the call by Najib for Taib Mahmud to step down, even feel betrayed.
The tensions in the media between Najib and Taib has openly revealed differences in the BN leadership, which are not likely to be resolved easily, making for considerable uncertainty. Logistically, entertaining ministers from peninsular Malaysia has caused many a headache and distraction, allowing less concerted efforts in the campaign. This BN divide is affecting the campaign.
The third group that will shape the outcome is the young. While the change in loyalty among older voters is important, especially Chinese voters who were previously loyal to SUPP, the young will have a voice this time.
In 2006 and 2008, young voters voted more for the opposition than they did at any other times. Exposure to contrasting development models, lack of local job opportunities, and discontent with the older incumbents in the BN have had led to greater opposition allegiance.
The contrast in the choice of candidates is clear – the opposition candidates are much younger. Most are professionals who bring with them new ideas. In BN, there are only a handful of candidates less than 50 years old and even the impressive effort by SUPP to transform lacks a youthful face.
Younger voters have engaged with alternative media sources as well, especially Sarawak Report through blogs and Facebook. What is unknown is how many of them will vote. Many of the youth at the rallies are unregistered voters, but those who are there are experiencing a political awakening.
The young will play a crucial role this time round since they are less susceptible to vote buying and intimidation.
Conflicting campaign styles and messages
From the onset, the opposition has set the campaign and the BN has followed and responded, which is very different compare to the last few by-elections.
As the campaign has drawn to a close, it has become clear that Malaysia continues to embrace modern campaigning, even in Sarawak. Yet, they have done it in contrasting ways.
For the opposition, there has been the focus on alleged abuses of power, especially corruption and land grabbing. The campaign has centred around Taib Mahmud, with open calls for him to step down after 30 years in office. It has focused on “ubah” or change, with successful sales of tens of thousands the ‘Ubah’ toy bird, which is now only available on Ebay.
Despite early challenges with the seat allocations, the cooperation among Pakatan parties has been relatively smooth, which is not a surprise after 16 by-elections. The opposition has pointed to their governance records in peninsular Malaysia, especially Penang, to win support and illustrate that change is possible.
The criticisms against Taib and SUPP have been hard-hitting and personal as the opposition worked hard to draw attention to the problems of his lengthy tenure, with parallels to Egypt and the Middle East.
Sarawakian voters have been reminded that they can make a difference; and the feeling of empowerment has raised expectations. For the opposition to gain seats, they have to instill a sense of positive change and hope, not just aiming to discredit the current leadership.
The positive focus in the last few days of the opposition campaign has aimed to win the middle ground, to move the bar from 10 seats to 24.
For BN, the messages have also been both negative and positive. The use of fear and ethnic cards has been tried and tested. The BN has also gone after the opposition. They were attacked for violating Sarawak political culture through its hard-hitting messages, and there had been an appeal to the perceived conservative and reserved nature of Sarawakians to reject what has been called lies and intimidation.
The crowds have been linked to instability and provocation. They have argued that the opposition criticisms have lacked substantive evidence and crossed the line of civility. On some points, such as the comparison of the SUPP to orangutans, they may have a point.
Yet, there is a double standard as they themselves have engaged in campaigning that goes beyond fair play. Yesterday, there were widespread series of inaccurate SMSes on the opposition, such as the closure of the Batu Kawah service centers.
These inaccuracies do not go down with the local communities and look rather foolish. The main focus of the negative attacks remains on Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, from the sex video to RPK (blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin).
There is an obsession with discrediting the Pakatan leader. So far, it has had limited impact in Sarawak, given the disengagement with this style of Peninsular Malaysian politics. This effort misses the point – what many Sarawakians are concerned with are economic concerns and their families.
Rather than sex, the moral issue that has had the most salience is the issue of religious freedom. And while Najib and Taib should be credited for their efforts to reach out to the Christians, it remains to be seen whether the discussions will address the damage that has been done.
The movement in the BN campaign has been from more positive messages of development outlined in their manifesto and through more understanding statements on religion, to negative attacks and greater use of fear.
The contest for the middle ground is at stake, with the opposition focusing on the positive and the BN highlighting the negative. With the large degree of undecided voters, these strategies are indeed risky for both sides.
Integrity of the election process
Crucial however will be the actual conduct of the election. The signs of the integrity of the process being undermined are on the horizon and extremely worrying.
Postal voting was extended beyond the time allocated and polling agents were asked to be over 50 metres away, unable to do their jobs properly. This violated the whole spirit of fair play. Some polling agents are apparently being refused for polling day on spurious grounds of not coming from that community, again violating practices that suggest that the process is not professional and open.
There are concerns with the relocation of voters, with reports of up to 50,000 voters “moved” or potentially “missing”. There are questions about additional voters being “found”. With the blatant denial of Bersih 2.0 leaders entry into Sarawak, who are involved in assuring and protecting a fair conduct of the polls, the international reputation of Malaysia has already been dented.
If the process lacks integrity, this will cause even more anger as was shown in Egypt recently and historically in neighbouring countries such as the Philippines in 1986. Any possible “fixing” of the fixed deposit state may have short-term benefits, but will have long-term costs.
Sarawakians have power in their hands. Whoever Sarawakians support, it is important that they come out and vote. Their voice will be heard now more than ever. Whatever the outcome in the final results, this campaign has shown that the Malaysian elections are increasingly competitive, even in the areas where they are seen to be “secured”.
Irrespective of the final numbers, change has already come to Sarawak. How much of that is in the hands of the voters.
DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. She is in Sarawak to observe the state election. Welsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.