Malaysia’s Ruling Coalition Retains Sarawak in Key State Polls
(Bloomberg) -- Voters in Malaysia’s biggest state rejected the opposition alliance in elections on Saturday, increasing pressure on Anwar Ibrahim to step aside as de facto opposition leader and forcing a rethink in strategy ahead of a national vote that may be called as soon as next year.
Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan failed to wrest the state of Sarawak from the local parties aligned with the ruling United Malays National Organisation. The Sarawak Parties Alliance won enough seats to retain their hold on the Borneo island, according to the Election Commission in a statement late Saturday. The result was expected, as they have controlled the state since independence.
The opposition was already thrashed last month in a state election in peninsular Malaysia thanks to an UMNO campaign led by disgraced former premier Najib Razak who focused on reviving a pandemic-battered economy. Najib criticized the opposition for harping on his corruption trials linked to troubled state fund 1MDB, although an appeals court upheld a guilty verdict soon after the polls.
UMNO didn’t contest in the Sarawak polls, preferring to back local parties in the resource-rich state. The victory will help it consolidate power after the pro-Malay party returned to the top seat of government four months ago and could bring forward the next general election that must be held by 2023.
Not Much Change
Blaming Anwar’s leadership alone for Pakatan Harapan’s inability to make any headway in Sarawak would be “hoping for a quick fix, but little would change,” said Wong Chin Huat, a professor of political science at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University in Malaysia.
Pakatan Harapan needs to transform into a policy-based coalition instead of a mere election-based alliance and form a shadow cabinet if it wants to compete, Wong said. “With a shadow cabinet, Anwar’s potential heirs will naturally emerge. Without that, a new captain without a functioning team will not keep any excitement for long.”
Anwar’s own fortunes are also sliding along with that of the opposition coalition.
There have been calls for him to resign and make way for younger leaders after the dismal showing at the Malacca state election that saw his own party completely wiped out. Anwar has acknowledged the calls within the opposition coalition to step down but has brushed aside the need to do so immediately.
Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat still backs him as the opposition leader, although internal party elections that must be held by May 2023 could see some changes.
“We don’t see a change at the very top. Keadilan will have party elections soon that will see a clearer, younger line-up post Anwar, but Anwar will still be leading the campaign” for the next general election, said Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, a PKR lawmaker, referring to the next general election.
Anwar has struggled for decades to take power in Malaysia. He was seen as Mahathir Mohamad’s successor in the 1990s before he was fired and spent six years in jail for abuse of power and sodomy. He went back to jail again in 2015 on a subsequent sodomy charge during Najib’s time as prime minister.
Mahathir, who was supposed to make way for Anwar to become prime minister, kept pushing back the handover date that eventually led to the unraveling of the government.
Anwar and Mahathir mainly tapped voter disillusionment with UMNO in the 2018 elections to win big, focusing on Najib’s troubles with debt-laden state fund 1MDB. This holds little traction in rural Sarawak then and now, as pledges on building roads and raising incomes are the main issues.
“It is very, very difficult to dislodge the government there,” said James Chin, a professor at the University of Tasmania. That’s mainly because much of Sarawak is made up of small villages patronized by government-aligned chiefs who dictate which parties the voters should support, he said.
Elections in Sarawak are often an opportunity for voters to get cash and food handouts from the ruling parties in exchange for their support at the ballot box, which is illegal but rarely enforced. About 55% of the 1.25 million voters in Sarawak went out to vote for the 82 lawmakers to the state assembly, according to the Election Commission.
While the opposition has been unable to agree on who should lead their campaign for the Sarawak elections, there has been consensus on seat allocations and they had been campaigning separately under a looser platform.
Some in Pakatan Harapan see that as a good road map for the next national elections, a reversal from the coalition’s earlier strategy to contest under Anwar’s party logo in the 2018 polls.
“Component parties should highlight their own manifestos and use their own logos,” said Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad. The opposition went into Sarawak as “very much the underdogs,” he added, a scenario similar to the future national polls.
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