By Vanitha Nadaraj
The Malaysian prime minister is facing the toughest challenge to his political career, and it can affect the ruling Barisan Nasional’s performance at the next general election. But that challenge is not the Sarawak state elections on 7 May.
Despite the confidence issues Najib Razak is facing, the ruling coalition is set to retain control of the Sarawak state government. Even the opposition knows that, and part of the reason is that their parties are still not strong enough to be a threat to Barisan Nasional in Sarawak.
And it is going to harder this time around. The number of state constituency seats increased from 71 to 82, after electoral boundaries were recently redrawn. Opposition politicians say Barisan Nasional has an unfair advantage because of gerrymandering.
Even if the number of state seats remained at 71, it would still be hard for the opposition to deny Barisan Nasional a two-third majority, much less to form the state government.
Uphill task for opposition parties
The last state elections, held in 2011, saw the opposition make its biggest ever dent in the Barisan Nasional fortress with the ruling coalition losing eight seats. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) doubled the number of seats it won to 12. Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) won three, and that gave the opposition a total of 15 seats. Barisan Nasional won 55 seats, and an independent candidate won one.
It is the peninsula-based opposition parties that got stronger in the last state elections, and they are the ones mounting pressure on Barisan Nasional in Sarawak ever since. But the recent entry ban on prominent politicians and activists is not going to make campaigning easy for parties like the DAP and PKR.
Members of parliament from the DAP, Teresa Kok and Tony Pua, and from PKR, Rafizi Ramli, Tian Chua and Nurul Izzah Anwar, are among the more than 30 persons banned from entering the state. Both Sabah and Sarawak have control over their own state borders.
Opposition party members from Sarawak are also going to find it tough. Many will have doors slammed at their faces when they go campaigning. A recent study by the independent Merdeka Center for Opinion Research showed that more than half of the respondents said Sarawak was headed in the right direction. This means Sarawakians are generally happy with the present government and the direction it is taking.
Analysts are already saying opposition parties may not be able to better their 2011 record. It is not just the external factors like border redrawing and state government under Chief Minister Adenan Satem’s leadership that make it so. There are also the internal factors.
The Sarawak elections is bringing to light internal issues that the opposition parties are grappling with that will affect their performance at the next general election due by 2018.
The Merdeka Center study also showed that about 33% of the respondents were worried over rising cost of living, economic hardship, jobs and other related matters. The irony is that in spite of this, majority of respondents feel the present government will carry them through.
This is where ingenuity in utilising bread-and-butter issues as campaign tools in Sarawak elections is needed because this same issue will be the plat du jour at the next general election. Issues relating to high cost of living, retrenchments, impact of Goods and Services Tax (GST), and slow down in businesses will definitely cause sleepless nights for Barisan Nasional at the next general election.
Who gets which seat?
The Islamist party PAS seems to have one foot in the opposition alliance, and one foot out – an issue that has not been resolved and may not be even up to the next general election. Previously, there were three parties in the bloc – PAS, PKR and DAP – but last year huge cracks became apparent.
The DAP has made it clear that it will not work with PAS, and vice versa, but PKR wants to PAS to stay. A splinter group from PAS formed Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) and this party with DAP and PKR has formed Pakatan Harapan (Bloc of Hope).
Now comes the tricky part: which party gets which seat? The rule has always been to have only one opposition party candidate pitted against a Barisan Nasional candidate for each seat. This will ensure a two-way fight and not three-cornered contests what will split votes for the opposition. Which is what will happen when PAS forces a three-way fight with BN and either one of the Pakatan Harapan parties.
PAS plans to contest in 11 seats, and Pakatan Harapan is going to make way for PAS to avoid three-cornered fights. But PAS can at the last minute throw a spanner in the works and go for three-corner fights. Then there are overlapping claims for the Malay/Melanau seats between PKR and Amanah, which can be hard to get around.
On a national level when planning seat allocation for the next general election, this is going to be a infuriating experience. If decisions are made arbitrarily by only one party in the opposition bloc, the other parties can chose not to help in campaigning. This can cause the opposition to lose that seat.
DAP is now struggling with confidence issues and these will affect DAP a lot more during campaigning. Each time the opposition talks about the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) controversy, Barisan Nasional will let it be known that DAP leadership is also corrupted. Barisan Nasional now has political ammunition to counter opposition claims of abuse and corruption. The same is likely to happen during campaigning at the next general election.
In Malaysia, elections are won in rural and semi-urban areas where such simple counter-attack tactics can do wonders. All Barisan Nasional has to do is make a list of alleged acts of corruption and abuse of power by opposition parties, and the battle would be won.
Then there is PKR, the party that still has not found its direction forward after the jailing of their de facto leader, Anwar Ibrahim, in early 2015. His wife and party president, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, does not have the full support of the party.
Some feel the Anwar dynasty needs to allow other budding leaders to rise. But it was Anwar who provided the opposition the leadership it needed and kept both DAP and PAS from getting at each other’s throats.
The opposition front is not the same as it was at the 2011 Sarawak elections or the general election of 2013. It is now far less organised and somewhat rudderless. Unless these parties learn from the Sarawak elections and employ better strategies at the next general election. But somehow, it does not look like that will happen.