April 22, 2011
Challenges for Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat Post Sarawak Elections
by Dr. Ong Kian Ming*
In my analysis earlier on the Sarawak elections, I explained the opposition’s failure to deny the BN a two-thirds majority in terms of the insufficient and unevenly distributed non-Muslim bumiputera (NMB) vote swing against the BN.
The complexity of the changes in the level of BN support in the NMB-majority seats, and to a lesser degree, the Malay/Melanau-majority seats, were also illustrated and explained.
Here I put forth some of the implications and challenges for each of the major parties within the BN in Sarawak as well as the opposition in light of the election results.
What will Taib do now?
The biggest campaign issue during this state election was the length of time Abdul Taib Mahmud had been in power and when he would step down as chief minister. After the election, this issue remains unresolved.
The importance of Taib’s post-election plans as a political issue occupies an even greater prominence because he is at once the BN’s as well as the opposition’s greatest asset and liability in Sarawak.
Prime Minister Najib Razak and Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, both of whom were sending not-so-subtle signals to the Sarawak electorate that Taib would step down soon after the election because of the fear that he could cost BN the two-thirds majority, can no longer use this excuse to pressure Taib to retire.
After all, Taib did accomplish the goal of retaining the two-thirds majority relatively comfortably and his own party, PBB, winning all 35 of its seats with 68.3 percent of the popular vote in these seats.
To force Taib to step down before the next general election would be to risk a leadership struggle within PBB that may result in a Malay/Melanau faction breaking away to form its own party or to join an existing opposition party.
We have seen in Malaysia and in other similar non-democratic regimes that elite splits in the ruling party are one of the main causes of a long standing regime losing power through the ballot box.
At the same time, Najib cannot guarantee that Taib and his family will not adopt a more aggressive approach towards maximising their remaining period in office and hence, increase the rate of land grabs, dam building and oil palm estate expansion which may lead to the BN losing more votes from the Dayak community, where, according to my calculations shown earlier, such a swing had already taken place in this state election.
For Pakatan, and especially the DAP, Taib stepping down will deprive the opposition coalition of a central focal point for future campaigns, in the upcoming general election and in the next state election. If this happens, the best the opposition can hope for is for there to be a serious leadership tussle within PBB that would lead to a faction breaking off from this linchpin party of Sarawak BN.
My best guess is that the status quo will prevail until at least the next general election. The question which remains is what Taib will do to regain back some of the lost NMB vote since it will be hard for him to win back a significant number of Chinese votes.
Under this scenario, the BN will have to make up for the additional three to four parliamentary seats it will lose in the urban areas in Sarawak in the next general election by winning back more seats in Peninsular Malaysia in order to regain the two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Will SUPP become another Gerakan?
Prior to this election, there was already speculation that the SUPP was in danger of turning into a Gerakan – a Chinese-based party being wiped out in the only state which it has a significant political presence in. After April 16, SUPP’s worst fears were confirmed.
If not for the presence of postal votes in the Senadin seat in Miri, SUPP would have been left with only one Chinese state assembly person, Wong Soon Koh (right), who managed to achieve a relatively comfortable 1,800 vote majority in the 33 percent Iban seat of Bawang Assan in Sibu.
Fortunately for SUPP, BN still holds the reins of power in Sarawak and the state elections are held separately from the parliamentary elections which mean that its parliamentary representatives in the Chinese-majority seats of Stampin, Lanang, Sarikei and Miri did not lose their seats.
SUPP’s political representation in Sarawak has not been completely erased, unlike Gerakan’s presence in Penang after March 2008.
But still, the oldest political party in Sarawak will face an uphill task in trying to renew and rejuvenate itself, a promise which SUPP president Dr George Chan (left) failed to deliver following a smaller setback in the 2006 state election.
Gerakan’s ‘recovery’ efforts do not bode well for SUPP. Because of established hierarchical structures, it is hard to catapult fresh faces into positions of prominence. Without a strong leader, factional infighting becomes more pronounced and often spills into the public arena as demonstrated by the vote of no-confidence initiated against Penang Gerakan chief Teng Hock Nan’s leadership.
The more politically idealistic, especially the younger generation, would prefer to join the DAP rather than a component party in the BN. SUPP can expect to go through the same struggles which Gerakan has experienced and is currently experiencing in Peninsular Malaysia.
In addition, SUPP has to attempt to chart a new course for the party in light of the new reality of having more Iban than Chinese state assembly persons within its ranks. Is it realistic to expect these Iban state assemblypersons to move up the ranks of leadership within what is still very much a Chinese-based party?
SUPP’s best hope, in the near term, is that the Chinese swing against the BN will not be as large in the general election therefore allowing it to keep one or two of the six Chinese-majority parliamentary seats in Sarawak. The renewal and rejuvenation process will take much longer to occur, if it happens at all.
The rise of the Dayak Parties
Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries within the BN as a result of SUPP’s losses are the two Dayak-based parties – PRS and SPDP. PRS and SPDP now have eight and six seats respectively in the state assembly and there has already been some discussion on the appointment of an Iban deputy chief minister from one of these two parties, likely to be PRS president James Masing.
If Masing is indeed appointed as the DCM 2, it may pave the way for the much discussed merger between PRS and SPDP. Such a merger would be a double-edge sword for the BN in Sarawak.
A strengthened Dayak-based party arising from this merger may be a solution towards stemming any further slide in the level of BN support among the Ibans and the Bidayuhs. But this party could also prove to be a threat to PBB if there emerges pressure from within the state to have a Dayak chief minister after Taib steps down.
The strategy of divide and conquer, employed so effectively in the past to weaken Dayak representation and power in the state government, would work less well if there is only one Dayak party in the BN in Sarawak and in the context of a weakened SUPP, which can no longer collaborate as effectively with the PBB to weaken and divide the Dayaks.
It would not be too far-fetched to imagine that some of the SUPP Dayak state representatives would be tempted to join this merged entity if the interests of the Dayak community could be further advanced (and if they can aspire to a higher office than what the SUPP could offer them).
While Taib is publicly supportive of such a move, the greater likelihood is that he prefers the status quo of a divided Dayak representation within the BN in Sarawak.
What next for the DAP?
Having won 12 out of the 15 seats it contested in, what is next for the largest opposition party in Sarawak? The gains made by the DAP in each of the major cities in Sarawak – Kuching, Sibu, Sarikei, Bintulu and Miri, firmly cements its position as a national party with a strong opposition presence in most of the urban areas in Malaysia and as part of the state government in Penang and Selangor.
When the dust has settled (and it is settling very fast), the DAP will find that it faces a number of major challenges with its expanded representation in Sarawak. Firstly, it will have to beef up its local machinery in anticipation of the general election where it can win four more parliamentary seats, based on the state election results. But it will have to do this without the significant support system from Peninsular Malaysia that was present during the state election.
This can be achieved by leveraging on the ability of the new state assemblypersons to build and mobilise their own electoral machines. It has to strike while the iron is still hot and while the luster of the successful campaign still remains by recruiting volunteers and signing up new members.
The party should also seriously consider bringing in some fresh faces to contest in the urban parliamentary seats which the DAP stands a very good chance of winning, namely Stampin, Sarikei, Lanang and Miri.
By doing this, the party can broaden its base and build up a new generation of younger leaders to lead the party. This model was successfully adopted in Piasau where former president of the MCA Overseas Club Ling Sie Kiong (right) joined the DAP and achieved the role of a giant killer by defeating the SUPP president.
Secondly, it will have to minimise the pernicious effects of regional factionalism when it comes to competing for positions within the DAP state leadership. Some of the ill effects of these internal fights have been experienced by the DAP in Perak and Selangor, for example, but because of the dispersion of the DAP representatives in the different cities across the state, the likelihood of regional cliques and power bases forming is much greater. SUPP’s experience is a testament of this phenomenon.
Thirdly, the DAP needs to find creative ways to reach out to the Dayak voters in the out-of-town areas as part of a larger process of penetrating BN Dayak strongholds. The party can use its organisational and financial resources in the major cities to help PKR candidates who are working the ground outside these cities. And it can also consider reaching out to these areas more directly, especially if credible Dayak leaders can be attracted to join the party.
The recent proposal by DAP’s Lim Kit Siang for the party to merge with SNAP is particularly noteworthy since it can potentially break open new ground for both parties.
Aspiring Dayak politicians who have seen and perhaps experienced Snap’s disastrous electoral performance may find the DAP to be a more suitable avenue to make a political impact. They would be following in the footsteps of DAP’s Leon Donald, who contested in the Iban-majority seat of Simanggang and managed to decrease BN’s share of the popular by almost 17 percent.
Can PKR penetrate the interiors?
The last-minute selection of candidates and the burden of contesting in 49 state seats certainly diluted the effectiveness of PKR’s overall campaign in Sarawak.
Although PKR managed to win only three of these seats, the fact that they won more votes than Snap candidates in 25 overlapping seats dispels the myth that PKR is seen as a Peninsular-based party that cannot do better than a ‘local’ Sarawakian party like Snap. But this silver lining has to be backed up by continual on-the-ground efforts.
In a post-election environment, it is very likely that only a handful of PKR candidates will continue to work the ground in order to build up the support base for the opposition in the next general and state election. The challenge then for the PKR state leadership is to ascertain which among the candidates fielded are dedicated to the political struggle against the BN in Sarawak.
In areas where such dedicated candidates are found, help in the form of resources and manpower should be given. In areas with fly-by-night candidates, PKR should consider finding new possible candidates and asking them to work the ground in order to earn the right to compete in the next general or state election.
NONEBecause of resource constraints, it would make sense for PKR to cede some of these seats to DAP, especially if the DAP is successful in attracting a few credible Iban leaders to join its ranks.
Even if PKR competes in ‘only’ 44 seats and the DAP competes in 20, PKR can still claim the chief minister’s position if Pakatan as a whole manages to win a majority of state seats especially if such an arrangement was agreed upon by Pakatan beforehand.
The leadership of PKR in Sarawak also has to deal with the challenge of managing the conflict between the various factions within the party in the state. The question of why a Lun Bawang, in the person of Baru Bian, should lead the state leadership rather than a Dayak leader will continue to be whispered within the PKR ranks in Sarawak.
This is a challenge which Baru Bain must overcome with minimal interference from PKR in Peninsular Malaysia. At the same time, Baru must also realise that without a strong and charismatic Dayak leader within the ranks of PKR in Sarawak, it would be hard for the party to convince more Dayak voters to support it.
Dynamics between DAP and PKR
While DAP and PKR managed to avoid three-cornered fights (which wasn’t the case in the 2008 general election), the seat negotiation process revealed many frayed tensions between the two parties and may have affected electoral preparations in some of the disputed seats.
The next big test for both parties would be in the negotiations over the distribution of parliamentary seats in Sarawak in the next general election. It would not be easy for PKR to lay claim to any of the winnable Chinese-majority urban seats because of DAP’s stronger position and brand name in these areas.
In response, PKR may be tempted to reject demands by DAP to contest in some Iban-majority seats where it has Iban leaders. A possible compromise would be for the DAP to exchange a Chinese-majority seat in an area with a strong PKR local leader (Miri’s Michael Teo comes to mind) with a few of the tougher Iban-majority areas which the DAP can ‘invest’ in not just for the general election but also for the next state election.
The point here is that the sooner the seat negotiations are concluded, the more time the potential candidates and their parties have to get ready their elections machinery for these areas.
Possible scenarios for both sides
Before I conclude, I shall outline what I think will be the best case political scenarios for the BN and for Pakatan leading up to the next state election. The end result would probably be somewhere in between the best and worst possible outcomes for both these coalitions, but it is nonetheless instructive to evaluate the unlikely in order to contextualise the likely.
The coalition which is closer to the ideal scenario is likely to have the political advantage in the next state election.
Best-case scenario for the BN: Taib identifies a Malay successor who is acceptable to the PBB as well as to UMNO. The case for UMNO to enter Sarawak is weakened and the likelihood of serious strife within PBB is decreased significantly.
James Masing is named as the second DCM without too much protest from the PPB and SUPP. He manages to convince SPDP to merge with PRS but is careful not to threaten PBB’s dominant position within the BN in Sarawak.
SUPP elects Miri MP and Minister of Energy, Green Technology and Water Peter Chin as its president. In the meantime, a fresh pool of candidates from different backgrounds, age groups and gender are identified and given the mandate and resources to work the ground in the urban areas. SUPP’s old guard does not protest but fades quietly into the background. Only two out of the four SUPP Chinese-majority parliamentary seats are lost in the next general election.
Best-case scenario for Pakatan: The DAP quickly moves to expand its membership in the major cities. New volunteers step up to the plate including aspiring candidates who may be fielded in the next general election. Snap successfully merges with DAP and this encourages more Iban members and aspiring candidates to join the merged entity.
Approximately half of the PKR candidates continue to work the ground with some support given by the state leadership and by the DAP. Ali Biju, the newly-elected state assemblyperson for Krian, emerges as a Dayak PKR leader who can work well with Baru Bian.
Parliamentary seat negotiations with the DAP are concluded way in advance of the next general election. Credible candidates are identified and given sufficient time to prepare. PKR wins two or three parliamentary seats and DAP wins four or five. Pakatan wins 10 parliamentary seats in Sarawak.
As a concluding note, the gains made by the opposition in Sarawak would likely force Najib to postpone the general election to the end of this year, at the earliest, but more likely to early 2012.
The tough Sarawak battle means that the BN cannot assume that either Sabah or Sarawak can be considered fixed deposit seats in the next general election.
ONG KIAN MING holds a PhD in political science from Duke University. He is pioneering a Master in Public Policy (MPP) program at UCSI University. He was based in Sibu for two weeks during the Sarawak election. He can be reached at email@example.com.