Malaysia State of Sarawak to Hold Elections May 7

Dennis Wong
160414-MY-sarawak-620.jpg Outgoing Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud (right) hands over his resignation letter to then-Gov. Abang Muhammad Salahuddin in Kuching, Malaysia, Feb. 12, 2014.

Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET on 2016-04-14

Upcoming State Legislative Assembly elections in Sarawak, Malaysia’s biggest state, will be a national litmus test for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which has controlled local politics for 53 years, analysts say.

But even though a financial scandal has overshadowed the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak and led to widespread calls for his resignation in Peninsular Malaysia, some political analysts are casting doubt that the 1MDB affair could tilt the balance of power in the East Malaysia state toward the opposition when polling occurs May 7.

"Bread-and-butter issues reign supreme for many in the interior. All these issues about 1MDB, Najib scandals and even clean governance are too far for them to digest, unless the opposition have played their part in educating these rural voters,” Jeniri Amir, an associate professor at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, told BenarNews.

He was referring to allegations of corruption and the mismanagement billions of dollars linked with the state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

On Thursday, the Election Commission announced the date for legislative polls, with 1.3 million registered to vote in Sarawak. The commission also set April 25 as the date for when parties could nominate candidates for 82 seats in the assembly, which was dissolved on April 11.

According to Mohd Faisal Syam Abdol Hazis, an associate professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, the opposition in Sarawak will try to exploit 1MDB and other “urban issues,” but that might not go far enough to sway voters in the largely rural state on Borneo whose population is scattered.

“The anger it creates may not be translated into votes at the end of the day,” Faisal told BenarNews.

The state elections in Sarawak are also seen as a political test for Malaysia’s ruling coalition and the opposition, because Sarawak and neighboring Sabah are the only Malaysian states that hold state legislative elections separately from parliamentary elections.

The vote here, in other words, could offer signs as to what might happen in the next general election, which is due in the middle of 2018, some observers say.

Popular politician

One of the names that will loom large in next month’s elections in the Land of the Hornbills is that of Chief Minister Adenan Satem, the president of the United Traditional Bumiputera Party (PBB) – the largest political party in Sarawak and a partner in the nation’s ruling BN coalition. At the local level, the Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP), the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) and the Sarawak Peoples’ Party (PRS) are PBB’s allies in the state’s ruling BN coalition.

The BN has ruled Sarawak since the region joined Malaysia in 1963.

Since taking office in 2014, Adenan has made headlines for combating illegal logging and corruption in timber-rich Sarawak.

He succeeded Abdul Taib Mahmud, who served as chief minister for 23 years, and is now Sarawak’s governor.

According to electoral rules, the governor appoints as chief minister the leader of the party that wins a majority of assembly seats.

“Adenan is very loved by many. His ability to reach out to the masses and his people-centric policies made him so. He even disassociates the state from sensitive issues and policies like the Good and Services Tax by saying it has nothing to do with Sarawak,” Jeniri said.

He was alluding to a GST tax rate of 6 percent, which was introduced by the federal government a year ago and remains deeply unpopular because of its perceived inflationary effect on prices.

Other observers, however, predict that Adenan stands to lose some votes because of the 1MDB affair.

“Studies show the GST policy has really hurt both the urban and rural communities. Everyone is feeling the economic pinch. Even with Adenan’s popularity, everyone knows he can’t be contesting in all 82 seats, unless the candidates convince voters otherwise,” Haziz said.

Visiting opposition figures banned

Adenan, a former federal government cabinet minister, has also been instrumental in helping Barisan Nasional retain its grip on Sarawak by banning opposition leaders and activists from other parts of Malaysia from entering his state during the run-up to elections.

On Tuesday, Adenan told local media that such as ban was needed “to protect the interests of Sarawak from unsavoury elements.”

“Political or otherwise, it is my job as chief minister. But they have the liberty to come to Sarawak anytime - after the elections,” he added.

Sarawak has certain level of autonomy in administration, immigration and judiciary from West Malaysia including controlling the entry and residence of non-Sarawakians.

Thirty people, mostly opposition figures, have been banned from setting foot in the state while federal ministers from BN are allowed to roam freely here.

An official from the multi-racial and opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) Abdul Aziz Isa, criticized the state travel ban imposed by Adenan.

“Adenan is playing racism through regionalism. If he believes in the 84 percent Sarawakian support, then why does he has to be afraid of West Malaysian opposition leaders coming into the state,” Abdul Aziz told BenarNews.

An earlier version gave wrong information about Sarawak's unusual format for state and parliamentary elections.


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