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ATimes: Borneo barometer [Sarawak]
By Anil Netto

9/9/2001 11:48 pm Sun

Asia Times
8th September 2001


Borneo barometer

By Anil Netto

PENANG - Malaysia's resource-rich Sarawak state in northern Borneo gears up for state elections that will be closely watched for signs that the federal ruling coalition's influence could be waning.

The state election will be held on September 27 and will provide an early indicator as to whether the ruling coalition will need to worry in the next federal-level elections due by 2004.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's Barisan Nasional (National Front or BN) coalition dominated the outgoing Sarawak state assembly with 58 out of 62 seats. The multi-ethnic but Chinese-based opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) had one seat, while Independent candidates held the remaining three.

The assembly, elected in 1996 for a five-year term, was dissolved on Monday and nomination day for candidates will be on September 18, leaving only nine days for campaigning.

Sarawak's diverse ethnic composition and a range of local issues mean that the poll result cannot be seen as an accurate barometer of the BN's nationwide popularity. Its population comprises Malay-Muslim Melanaus (21 percent); Ibans, Bidayuhs, other Melanaus and hinterland indigenous people (about 52 percent); and urban-based Chinese (27 percent).

The patriarchal Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, with his distinctive white hair, is from the minority Malay Melanau community. Behind his disarming smile is a man who has ruled the state with an iron grip for two decades, consistently delivering a solid bank of votes to Mahathir's federal coalition. In return, he has been allowed to run the state pretty much on his own terms, stamping his authority in almost all areas of public life.

In the past general election in 1999, Sarawak helped the BN retain its crucial two-thirds majority in the federal parliament despite a significant erosion in majority ethnic Malay support on the peninsula. The state-level BN coalition swept all 28 of the state's parliamentary seats - which account for 15 percent of the federal parliament's seats up for grabs in that election.

Together with neighboring Sabah state, the two north Borneo states contribute 25 percent of the 193 seats in the federal parliament and figure prominently in Mahathir's electoral calculations.

Any dent in support on the eastern front would send alarm bells ringing in Kuala Lumpur. And there are signs that Taib will not have things entirely his way as discontent in the ranks of the BN brews. The BN is set to face a slate of independent candidates, led by a former deputy president from Taib's party, Abang Abu Bakar, in up to 45 seats.

Taib himself is moving from Asa Jaya, a Malay-dominated constituency near the capital Kuching, to contest in the Balingian constituency in his own Melanau heartland near Sibu town.

Measuring 124,449 square kilometers, Sarawak is the largest state in Malaysia accounting for 37.5 percent of the land area in the country. Its rainforests are home to more than 8,000 species of flowering plants and over 20,000 animal species, the majority of which are insects. But extensive logging has depleted much of its timber resources and sparked confrontations with natives.

Apart from independent candidates, Taib will also have to deal with a newcomer in the state polls - the National Justice Party (Keadilan) led by Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim. It is hoping for an encouraging showing in its debut in the Sarawak state polls.

Keadilan's coalition partner, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which has made significant inroads on the peninsula, has little support in north Borneo and is not expected to make any impact in the coming state polls.

The opposition Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front) coalition itself is not as cohesive in Sarawak. A simmering dispute between PAS and the DAP over the former's aim to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state has carried over into the state, with the DAP distancing itself from PAS.

But both the DAP, whose leadership in the state was in disarray, and Keadilan have indicated that they are optimistic about resolving the usual thorny issue of seat allocations between the two parties to ensure one-on-one contests. Muddying the picture is of course the slate of independent candidates.

Land acquisition, native customary rights, cronyism and nepotism - including allegations of favoritism in the award of contracts and timber concessions - and ethnic grievances are likely to dominate the election issues put forward by the opposition.

The BN is likely to point to its record of raising living standards and consistent positive economic growth. Indeed, Sarawak even bucked the trend during the regional recession of 1998 and posted a small positive growth that year.

Opposition parties are likely to face an uphill battle in the campaign. They cannot match the BN's resources and "machinery" when it comes to campaigning deep in the interior areas. Nor can they match what is euphemistically called the "politics of development".

Thanks to its decades-long incumbency and the vast resources at its disposal, the state-level BN has brazenly portrayed itself as the only party capable of delivering "development" to the people. That makes voters, even many of those disgruntled by their resettlement to make away for the controversial Bakun Dam project, more likely to undi perintah - to vote for the incumbent powers-that-be - out of fear of being left out of the development process.

Opposition parties also cannot hope to counter the barrage of propaganda in support of the BN's campaign dished out by the mainstream media.

No one seriously expects the BN to lose power in the state, but the margins of victory and the popular vote will be closely watched. If the opposition wins in more than five seats, it could spark jitters in Kuala Lumpur. If it captures 10 seats or more, then it will be widely seen as a major setback for the BN that could have far-reaching implications for its continued dominance.

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