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Now’s not the time for Najib to call a GE

THE results of the Sarawak state elections last weekend were extraordinary in the sense that one cannot strictly say that they were expected. Nor can one claim that they were unexpected.

This in truth reflects how uncertain things seemed during the 10 days of campaigning. Wishful thinking mixed freely with insider information, and strategic statements pretended to be pronouncements of facts. For example, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, after taking over the campaigning, surprisingly stated that the two-thirds majority was under threat after his invitation to Sarawak’s Chief Minister Taib Mahmud to declare that he would soon resign was rejected.

The final results were that the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) has retained power with their two-thirds majority intact; Mr Taib, Chief Minister since 1981, stayed rooted in his seat despite a strong international campaign alleging rampant abuses of power by his government; and rural support for the government remained steady despite the abject poverty in some areas.

A voter casts her vote in Sarawak state elections on April 2011

At a superficial level, the status quo remains. However, a closer look reveals a strengthening of trends that have become increasingly obvious after the general election three years ago. For starters, where campaigning is concerned, the Opposition retains the initiative, having the oh-so-easy advantage of pointing the finger at bad governance on the part of BN parties. This has made it difficult for BN campaigners to draw or excite crowds. Distributing goodies and goodie bags of various shapes and size became the alternative – and effective – tactic instead.

Second, urban sympathies continue shifting away from the BN. This strongly suggests that the swelling population of young and educated city-dwellers will continue to gain in importance as the constituency of the future. This spells big trouble for dominant parties such as Mr Najib’s UMNO and Mr Taib’s PBB, and making inroads into this area will remain a great challenge for them.

As of now, we have a strange situation where both Kuala Lumpur, the main city in West Malaysia, and Kuching, the main city in East Malaysia, are practically fully represented by the opposition, excepting one seat in Kuala Lumpur. This trend is evident in many other urban centres as well.


Third, we are witnessing a steady weakening of the BN Model itself. With the trouncing of the once Chinese-supported SUPP by the DAP on April 16, one must not only draw a comparison with how the latter wiped out the ruling Parti Gerakan Rakyat in Penang in 2008, but also recognise that there is a trend here that stretches further.

Three years ago, the BN suffered weighty retreats through not only the Gerakan’s losses, but also through those suffered by the People’s Progressive Party, the Malaysian Indian Congress and even the Malaysian Chinese Association. These are all parties whose mission within the BN is to secure the non-Malay vote.

This they failed to do, which calls into question the coalition’s ability to represent the country’s diverse population under the dominance of UMNO. Serious efforts at renewal have not been forthcoming either.

The SUPP is the latest BN member to pay for being a subservient party for too long within the BN power structure.

Four, the practice of malapportionment in electoral representation had undoubtedly been a useful tool for the BN in retaining power. However, common sense tells us that a weighing scale cannot be continually engineered to BN’s advantage forever. Beyond a certain point, this misrepresentation seeks out a new expression for itself.

In Sarawak, the BN won 77.5 per cent of the contested seats last weekend. However, the popular vote cast in its favour was only 55 per cent. That gives us a mismatch of 50 per cent! Just looking at these figures, we see that a readjustment in representation was long overdue. An immediate effect of the Sarawak election result is to discourage Prime Minister Najib Razak from calling a snap general election – due only in 2013 but widely speculated to take place within a year.

His coalition lost vital ground that he cannot possibly regain anytime soon without first making serious structural changes to the BN model of governance.

Getting a new mandate that he can call his own essentially means winning back the two-third parliamentary majority his coalition lost in 2008. Now, if  support for the opposition in Sarawak is kept at the present level, a general election now would mean a loss of at least three parliamentary seats for the BN.

All else being equal, what Sarawak tells Mr Najib is that calling a general election any time soon would not be worth his trouble.

[By Ooi Kee Beng, for TODAY 19 April 2011]


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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