The prime minister's decision to take up temporary residence in Sarawak is an unprecedented move by any prime minister for a state election.
The cynics are at it again following Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s decision to park himself from Sunday in Sarawak for six days. De facto PKR chief Anwar Ibrahim, for one, even thinks that Najib’s presence might indicate an imminent implosion of sorts within the ruling state Barisan Nasional (BN).
Anwar appears to be in seventh heaven over Najib’s presence but the recalcitrant leader may yet have cause for regrets. It has been tough going for PKR in the 24 seats where it’s taking on both the BN and the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) which is banking on sentiments.
Voters are likely to choose between BN and SNAP, ignoring the Peninsular Malaysia-based PKR. The ultra-conservative longhouse Ibans in particular, it’s said, would never vote for an outside party.
The BN, meanwhile, has been too busy to gloat over PKR’s obvious difficulties on the ground in Iban country.
Speculation is rife that many BN members are unhappy with more than half the 20 new faces fielded by the coalition. They are even more unhappy that quite a number of old guards have been retained this time despite earlier assurances that they would be dropped. There are no indications either, except in the case of Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, whether this would be their last hurrah.
It’s not known whether these factors could be behind the record number of 41 independents entering the fray this time. Less than a quarter of these independents are linked to the opposition.
How such dissatisfaction would translate into votes on election day on Saturday, remains to be seen. The presence of BN-friendly independents in the fray can only favour the opposition especially since the ruling coalition has “disowned” them.
Already, Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) is suspicious that independent George Anak Lagong might have been fielded in Pelagus by the incumbent Larry Sng, reportedly the former’s “nephew”. The independent’s entry has not gone down well with PRS president James Masing who bluntly refused to re-admit Sng despite earnest pleas by Taib on behalf of the son and son-in-law of two of his cronies.
Privately, an infuriated Masing has been reported as telling party insiders that he “has to keep looking over his shoulder all the time, lest someone stabs him in the back”.
Publicly, he demonstrates his loyalty to Taib based on the principle of collective responsibility and “a person – meaning Taib – is innocent until proven guilty”. Taib or rather his legendary absolute power has quickly become the main issue in this election and forced Najib to repeat that “he (Taib) will step down after the polls”.
In any case, it must be conceded that Najib’s decision to take up temporary residence in Sarawak is an unprecedented move by any prime minister for a state election. He appears to promote the line that it smacks of either overkill on his part or preferring to err on the side of caution. Sarawak polls have traditionally been a local affair even with the advent of Peninsular Malaysia-based political parties.
The Umno leader, in any case, had to step in and take charge when it became obvious that Taib, who will be 75 this year, doesn’t seem to have the stamina to maintain a punishing election campaign schedule. The fact that he would have to step down after the elections could be one reason for his apparent lack of enthusiasm although he has denied being under pressure to work out his exit strategy. In a contradiction in terms, during one ceramah in his Balingian seat on April 5, he pleaded to be allowed to complete his work before letting go of his position.
Taib’s health militates against any long goodbyes. The white-haired kleptocrat visibly appears to have some problems in controlling his facial muscles even when he’s not speaking. He twitches noticeably around the mouth in an endless chewing motion even when he’s not speaking or having nothing in his mouth. The unsuspecting might think that he has taken up chewing sireh. This case of the nerves going haywire is not unusual in the very old but an acute embarrassment when it comes to one during speaking engagements.
Taib’s low-key contribution to the BN ceramah will not see Najib making up for the slack. In his own words, he pointed out last Sunday that Sarawak is a huge place and that it would not be possible for him to cover all 71 state constituencies in less than a week.
Besides, the indications are that most voters have already made up their minds, ceramah or no ceramah.
Hence, Najib’s natural impulse has been to fall back on his own “formula” when it comes to elections. He’s given more to appealing directly to the people: “Let’s make a deal. You do something for me and I will do something for you. You help me and I will help you.” Although this formula failed in Sibu during a parliamentary by-election there last year, Najib is heartened that it has worked elsewhere especially during the recent spate of by-elections which BN won in Peninsular Malaysia, Batang Ai (Sarawak) and Batu Sapi (Sabah).
The more discerning among the voters, as in Sibu, might describe the Najib formula as a brazen attempt to bribe them with their own money. The Taib government, being in a caretaker capacity, indeed has no business to make public pronouncements via Najib on allocations for development projects. It can be likened to a form of corruption and electoral fraud which automatically nullifies any result. Najib’s fig leaf of an excuse that “the business of government cannot stop even during elections” does not hold any water.
Najib probably thinks that he has no choice since Sarawak, along with neighbouring Sabah, is his electoral “fixed deposit” states. Also noteworthy is the fact that PBB has been the local proxy since 1970 for Umno based on its ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy and dominance) mindset.
Besides, if the elections were held today, the BN would lose its coveted two-thirds majority, without factoring in the role of BN-friendly independents. There’s no telling which way the mood will swing in the hours leading up to D-day. This could have been another factor sending Najib in a hurry to Sarawak.
The consensus of most estimates, and as Najib has acknowledged, is that the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) is in danger of losing its 15 “Chinese” seats to the DAP.
Elsewhere, it’s expected that the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) would lose Ba’Kalelan to Sarawak PKR chief Baru Bian and Pakan to SNAP. SPDP president William Ikom is the incumbent in the latter of these two Dayak seats. Ikom, defending Pakan for the seventh time, has allegedly mortgaged his party to a Chinese towkay who appears to call the shots.
The opposition is confident that it can take three Malay seats from Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), that is, Nangka and Pantai Dalam to PKR and Beting Maro to PAS.
SNAP senses victory in four PBB seats, namely Bukit Saban, Machan, Lambir and Kedup.
Total opposition wins in that case would be 25 seats: DAP (15); SNAP (five); PKR (three); Pas (one); and BN-friendly independent (Pelagus) one. The BN would have lost its two-thirds majority.
The going could get even better for the opposition but not more than 38 seats at an absolute maximum. This would mean SUPP losing its remaining four seats; Pesaka losing its remaining five seats; and PBB losing two Melanau seats and a further two Malay seats.
The possibility of the opposition forming the next state government does not exist if SNAP plays hardball after April 16.
The real issue in this election is not whether BN would lose it two-thirds majority; whether, as speculated by PKR, that SNAP would re-join the BN; or whether the opposition would form the state government.
The real issue is whether Dayak politics would finally be free of the control of Umno’s ketuanan Melayu mindset and that of PBB, its local proxy. That would mean the virtual destruction of PBB, the DAP putting on a strong showing and PKR/PAS pulling away a few Muslim seats from PBB.
Again, that’s yet another reason for Najib to park himself in Sarawak until April 16.