With the ‘landslide’ results of the Sarawak election last week, it would appear on the surface that Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has been given a political reprieve. His close ally Sarawak’s Chief Minister Adenan Satem secured an overwhelming majority of 72 out of 82 seats, or 87 percent of the seats.
The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition gained 8.3 percent of the popular vote, to a total of 63.7 percent compared to the 55.4 percent it won in 2011.
It would seem that the message sent across the world was that Sarawakians support the BN. They appear to care little for corruption, abuse of power, an electoral system that relies on massive vote buying, gross distortions of electoral constituencies and abuse of political position against opposition alternatives.
They were not moved by one of the most serious global money-laundering scandals. In fact, while this may be true for some of the electorate, this reading of the election is not complete.
The Sarawak results point to Malaysia’s opposition’s weaknesses and potentially even more debilitating trends ahead, as hope for change through the ballot box is deteriorating. At the same time, the BN ‘victory’ also should be understood of as hollow, as the Sarawak ‘victory’ foreshadows serious problems ahead for the incumbent leadership at both the state and national levels.
A decisive Pakatan defeat
A preliminary analysis of the results at the seat and polling station levels suggests that the election results were as much about the opposition than the government. The Sarawak 2016 election reveal serious fundamental electoral weaknesses for the opposition that go well beyond the 8.3 percent swing toward the BN. The results show that the BN has seriously undercut the opposition’s traditional political base.
While further work is necessary to study the data and these assessments below are preliminary, the initial statistical analysis of the results suggests three important findings.
First of all, voter turnout levels fell across all the different ethnic communities, except the Orang Ulu. This largely rural ethnic community remained highly engaged in the campaign, as new seats were created and competitive contests in places such as Marudi, Mulu and Ba’kelalan and higher mobilisation by the BN machinery brought more Orang Ulu to the polls.
The 2016 Sarawak voter turnout numbers across communities were higher when compared to the 2011 state elections, but dropped significantly when compared to the 2013 general election. The largest declines were among Malays, followed by Chinese. The turnout results suggest that more Malaysians are less enthusiastic about the electoral options.
This lower turnout was especially impactful for the opposition, which has weaker machinery and relied on connecting to voters through issues. The opposition pull to the polls weakened, as the opposition did not inspire.
The voter turnout patterns also show the trend discussed earlier of the BN using the rural areas as its base, as turnout in rural areas remained high due to mobilisation through better machinery and resources. Despite the opposition moving into rural constituencies, the BN capitalised on its advantage in these areas.
The second major shift in voting occurred in support levels for the BN by ethnicity and place. The biggest swing in support for the BN when compared to earlier elections occurred among the Orang Ulu, with an estimated 15.1 percent swing from 2013 in favour of the incumbent government.
This was followed by an estimated 9.5 percent swing among the Chinese. There was a considerably more moderate boost for the BN among Iban and Bidayuh, estimated at 3.3 percent.
What these findings show is that the communities that were most inclined to support the opposition in Sarawak have swung back to the BN. In short, the base of the opposition support has been seriously undercut in 2016. Fence-sitters and swing constituencies returned to the BN fold.
We also see a pattern where the opposition is losing ground in urban areas, with an estimated 10.5 percent gain in support for the BN in these areas. A similar gain of an estimated 10.3 percent was made in semi-rural areas, with the least ground made for the BN in rural areas, an estimated swing of 7.1 percent.
To put this another way, the opposition did not lose as much in rural areas (so some of the rural engagement did have an impact despite the higher mobilisation by the BN), but lost ground in the core areas where it has traditionally won support and in areas where it was making headway electorally.
The third finding in voting is that the opposition is losing support among the young. Looking at a preliminary (and as yet incomplete) sample of saluran data, we see a narrowing of the generation gap, with younger voters more inclined to vote for the BN than in previous elections. Large number of Sarawakian youth do not register, but those that did register were less inclined to support the opposition this time round than in the last two elections.
The estimated swing among youth toward the BN compared to the 2013 election was 7 percent. Here too, this points to a deterioration of opposition support among a key group that it was winning.
Dissecting the opposition losses
Much has been made about the multi-corner fights between opposition parties, especially between DAP and PKR. This issue dominated the first few days of the campaign and sent the clear message to the Sarawak electorate (and the Malaysian electorate more generally) that the contest was about position and positioning rather than meaningful representation.
PKR proved itself the most ineffective in managing its electoral alliances as it fought battles against DAP and PAS, but ultimately voters rejected all of them. No political party made gains.
While the numbers alone suggest that the BN would have won seats such as Batu Kitang and Mulu without opposition squabbling, the symbolic importance of the infighting should not be underestimated. It showed an opposition that was insecure working together and self-centredly focused on victory for individual parties and individuals.
Beyond this message, the main change in the 2016 campaign was the fact that the opposition did not cooperate in campaigning. Rarely did opposition members from different political parties work together on the ground, or appear together in a ceramah. Working in silos affected machinery and engagement with voters across ethnicities.
For example, one cannot underestimate the limited ability of the DAP to appeal across races, when its campaign was conducted largely in Chinese dialects, especially in the urban areas. To understand the swing away from the opposition in these urban and semi-urban areas, one has to look at the capacity of all the political parties to cross the ethnic divide.
All showed weaknesses, as ethnic majority campaigning predominated. Urban and semi-urban areas are increasingly multi-ethnic, and non-Chinese. The DAP losses in Batu Kawah, Meradong and Piasau were affected by limited cross-ethnic appeals. A similar problem existed for PKR in Jepak and Machan. The impact of this was especially potent after the 2015 gerrymandering.
There were declines in the majority of Chinese across many of the opposition seats and more mixed seats. The BN won the most from the opposition’s declining multi-ethnic appeal, as gerrymandering made the short-comings in bridging ethnic communities even more prominent. Sarawak 2016 showed that in electoral appeals all of the opposition political parties is limited. They cannot go it alone and expect to win.
Another factor that affected the opposition was perception of the stakes involved in the contest. Voters across Sarawak did not see the 2016 polls as changing the national or state landscape. Pakatan Harapan was not perceived as a viable national alternative, because it did not act or present itself as such. Adenan was touted to win well before polls began, and many did not see a difference with a greater opposition presence at the state level.
In fact, the opposition was among some perceived as increasingly irrelevant. In a period of economic decline and uncertainty, voters opted for the familiar rather than the unknown, the functioning rather than the dysfunctional, the winner rather than the loser. Chinese voters in particular, especially businessmen, opted for access to the state government rather than distance.
Financially, many opted not back a loser, as donations to the opposition fell sharply. The opposition’s capitalisation of anger and protest in a negative campaign, failed in its delivery of a positive reason to vote for it. Not only did the opposition underestimate the anger toward the BN, it underappreciated the anger toward itself for failing to offer a substantive reason to vote for it. Many no longer believe the opposition’s electoral promise that is can bring about change.
Unless the opposition is able to gain a significant foothold in the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah, which comprise 20 percent of the total seats in the federal parliament, it will not be able to win national power. Moreover, unless it is able to resolve festering internal problems and to reconnect with critical swing groups in the electorate, the Sarawak 2016 swing will replicate itself in the next general election to be held by the end of the 2018 (or even sooner).
Insecurity is dominant within the opposition, as infighting and mutual destruction has eroded and are further eroding their chances of electoral victory.
Adenan’s not so secure win
At the same time, the Sarawak 2016 election showed that insecurity was a key driver for the BN, in the money spent/promised, the abuse of power by banning people, the delineation and overall overkill nature of the campaign. Now both Adenan and Najib face serious post-electoral challenges, with the former already a lame duck and the latter trying to duck serious international investigations in a scandal that will financially impact generations of Malaysians.
Adenan faces two immediate challenges. He has to choose a successor and the future team. Attention is already moving after the polls for jockeying for position and parties. The focus is turning towards positioning individuals and parties not only in the Adenan government, but also in a post-Adenan one.
The infighting within the BN will intensify, including within his own party, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB). Arguably one of the most serious electoral challenges to the BN in Sarawak came from disenchanted former BN candidates, in seats such as Ngemah, Serembu, Tamin and Simanggang, and candidates supported by opposing BN camps such as in Dudong. Independents won 4.9 percent of the overall vote.
Electoral history in Malaysia such as in 1995 and 2004 show that large electoral victories are often followed by internal splits, and this is already happening in Sarawak. BN fragmentation remains serious. Adenan is not as strong as he appears. He lacks the resources to use patronage as effectively as his predecessor, and as he has stated he is only a one-term CM, he has limited ability to use fear and loss of position to keep the BN in line.
Adenan’s weakness is accentuated by the fact that he has raised expectations and faces structural problems in delivery to voters. A la Pak Lah, everyone expects Adenan to meet his promises.
From assuring that the 40 percent of Christians in Sarawak that their rights will not be violated to educators expecting greater control over the curriculum, Adenan has to go beyond words to actions. Adenan has made the fatal mistake of overpromising and importantly promising conflicting things to different groups.
If there is one area that is perhaps the most difficult for Adenan to deliver on his promises, it involves the economy. Sarawak is now facing negative global conditions in key sectors such as oil and gas, with lower prices for palm oil. There is a noticeable decline in the vibrancy of the economy, as the youth continue to leave in droves.
Adenan does not have a clear road map for Sarawak’s economic transformation, beyond infrastructure. Economically there will likely be even greater dependence on the federal government (if the price of oil remains as it is) and reluctance by the federal government to pay up.
Politically Adenan will face conflict with the federal government in other areas such as religion and education. Compromises will have to be made. Adenan is not in a strong position, despite his mandate and he no longer has the check of the Sarawak elections as a card to play in his negotiations with federal authorities. In areas such as oil revenue, Adenan is already appearing to abdicate.
Najib’s false consciousness - the spell of victory
Najib remains on the political firing line. If there was one lesson for Najib in the Sarawak campaign, it was that an unpopular leader should turn over power if they want to win handsomely. The Sarawak results would have been very different with former chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud at the helm.
The challenges against Najib’s leadership are only likely to deepen with the persistence of the 1MDB scandal as well as the slowing economy. Najib remains deeply unpopular, even in Sarawak. Umno, and the BN, have a much stronger chance of winning without Najib than with him in the next election.
Beyond the personal electoral liability that the premier faces, Najib personifies ‘cash as king’ politics. The increase in spending in the Sarawak campaign will be expected to be continued in the next contests, the by-elections and later the GE. Everyone will want a part of the largess, as demands are increasing.
They want their share of 1MDB. Najib will face the challenge of coming up with the cash to continue payoff and support levels. Where will it come from in a global contracting economy and conditions of rising national debt will be a key question. The situation ahead for Najib is insecure in terms of resources, in spite of the missing 1MDB funds that he mismanaged.
Last, but not least, 1MDB is not going away. The urgings to resign will continue. Many in the international community are distancing themselves from a man whose scandal has crossed lines of acceptability, and the international media will not back away from the story.
The investigations are not going away. In fact, they are coming closer to home, to Najib’s family. The situation is one that is untenable, and insecurities remain real despite electoral victory. The Sarawak results may give the impression of strength, but they obscures real consistent weakness, a false consciousness of victory.
In Malaysia’s never-ending politicking, two by-elections now loom. Malaysians are fed up with campaigns and current political conditions. They would rather more focus on governing, solving problems, and building the country’s reputation rather than having it be damaged by a scandal-bound leader.
The trends in curbing media, arresting opposition politicians and using resources are not likely to end with last week’s results. Neither is the opposition likely to fully appreciate the devastating trends that show deep erosion in their support, as bickering has already started over the by-elections. Sarawak’s 2016 polls were sadly ultimately a victory for insecurity, rather than Malaysians.
Part 1: ‘Same Old’ in Sarawak campaign
Part 3: It’s raining money in Sarawak
BRIDGET WELSH is Professor of Political Science at Ipek University, Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asian Democratic Studies of National Taiwan University, Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Center, and University Fellow of Charles Darwin University.
This article, which first appeared in New Mandala, is the final instalment in a five-part series. Bridget Welsh would like to thank Sarawakians for their sharing of views and welcomes additional polling station data from candidates, both winners and losers. The preliminary analysis above is based on seat results and a quarter of the polling station results.