The myths of S’wak polls resultsMalaysiakini
The dust has begun to settle on the 10th Sarawak polls with the BN touting its retention of the two-thirds majority as a victory, while Pakatan Rakyat points to the more than doubling of its seats. This was the most competitive state election in Sarawak’s history and was hard fought by both sides.
BN, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak essentially camped in the state for 10 days to assure the two-thirds, while the opposition also focused is national machinery in Sarawak, bringing in the top guns from Peninsular Malaysia and thousands of party workers.
A closer look at the results show that the opposition has made impressive ground, despite its failure to break the two-thirds threshold. Sarawak is no longer BN’s fixed deposit, and trends in mobilisation and support suggest that it is even more likely not to be so unless Sarawak BN radically changes how it governs.
Myth of Chinese-only swing
The spin on this election reflects a similar tone of 2006, focusing on the gains in urban seats and Chinese voters. The implicit threat in Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud’s statement that the Chinese will pay for their lack of loyalty highlights the perception that the losses are the product of continued Chinese support for the opposition.
In terms of sheer number of voters for the opposition, this is correct. In all the Chinese-majority seats – from Padungan to Bukit Assek – the level of support for the opposition increased, both in number of votes and share of the vote.
This reflected the dynamic – almost electrifying – opposition campaign in the urban areas, especially in Miri where voters experienced the political awakening that their counterparts in Kuching had experienced in 2006, and in Sibu at the 2010 by-election.
No question about it, a growing number of Chinese supported the opposition in Sarawak. The interesting finding from the results, however, is that they are not alone, and in fact the Chinese swing toward the opposition is comparatively less (yes, less) than the changes within other communities.
By comparing the 2011 results with those of 2006, I trace the changes in voter turnout and share of support (percentage of majority among voters who turned out to vote) for the opposition at the seat level and, when appropriate and with available data, the polling stream level.
The preliminary findings highlight that the movement is greatest in mixed constituencies, and significant movement occurred across the ethnic communities, even the Malays.
Let’s begin with the mobilisation of voters across ethnicities. The 2011 polls show an impressive increase in voter turnout, in keeping with the increased competitiveness of the election. The greatest turnout increase was among the Malays, where the PBB machinery was well-honed, as more voters were brought to the polls, followed by increased participation of Chinese and Iban voters.
What this impressive increase in mobilisation across groups reveals is that Sarawakians recognised their power as voters and came out to vote in an unprecedented manner. This highlights the growing appreciation of political power in Sarawak and engagement with politics, which is in keeping with the unprecedented crowds at ceramah across the state, even in the rural areas.
The table (left) also highlights that the change in voting across the ethnic communities. The greatest movement compared to 2006 was in mixed seats, followed by movement in the Orang Ulu community in places such as Ba’Kelalan (where Baru Bian won his seat) but also places such as Telang Usan.
The share of movement in Orang Ulu-majority seats is large, a 20% swing. These numbers can be a bit deceiving in that the actual numbers of voters in Sarawak are small and 20% can reflect a small number of voters in the small constituencies, yet nevertheless, the swing is significant.
Ibans and Bidayuhs too change loyalities
Why then, given the swing, did the seats not move into opposition hands? The reason is simple – before 2011 opposition support in some of these areas was minuscule. In many constituencies, the opposition needed more than a 40% change to win. Yet there has been a very large swing, which is much larger than the swing in Peninsular Malaysia in 2008.
From my perspective, the most interesting ethnic changes occurred in the Malay/Melanau, Iban and Bidayuh areas. A look at the seat tally suggests that Malays are squarely in the BN camp. The PBB won all 35 of its seats and PAS failed to win a single seat, even in the close contest of Beting Maro.
The Malay/Melanau seats are interesting in a number of ways. First, the pattern towards the opposition varies, with a few of the seats moving even more strongly toward the BN, such as Sadong Jaya, and as such, the pattern is uneven.
Yet the Malay/Melanau ground was more competitive with more straight fights and more contests, such as in Daro and Dalat. PAS, in particular, made inroads. To suggest that the Malay/Melanau community is firmly behind the BN is wrong. Their support is changing as well, in spite of the ethnic campaigning and use of the racial card.
The Iban and Bidayuh majority seats also followed the pattern of opposition gains. In Iban areas, there was less movement in the share of the vote and like the Malay/Melanau seats the pattern was not consistent across seats toward the opposition, with some increased support towards the BN in Engkilili, but overall, the Iban have also changed loyalties.
As is shown in this table (right), this occurred most starkly in semi-rural areas.
The Bidayuh seats were seen to be those that would have determined whether the opposition broke the two-thirds or not. Pakatan hoped to pick up at least three of these Bidayuh seats, as sentiment on the ground toward the BN had shifted due to the religious issues and persistent exclusion of this group from economic benefits.
Higher education among the Bidayuh had increased awareness and exposure to political issues. The opposition failed to win a single seat, but here too the gains in the share of majority were impressive – an estimated 17.9% swing.
The bottom line is that the view that this election was the product of a bifurcated pattern of support – Chinese with the opposition and other groups with the BN – is wrong. Every group expressed serious concerns with the BN, and this was driven primarily with angst toward the long tenure and perceived excesses of the chief minister.
The urban voters myth
It is thus not surprising that given the changes across the board across ethnic communities, another myth needs to be shattered, namely that the opposition support is only in the urban areas.
Much has been made that the opposition won two very rural seats, Ba’kelalan and Krian. Yet, the most significant gains in terms of seats were in the semi-rural areas – for example, Batu Kawah, Dudong, Piasau (which has a large semi-rural area). The close fight in Senadin is also illustrative.
My preliminary analysis at the seat level shows that the gains in semi-rural seats were more than in the other areas, 19.7% compared to 14.8% in the rural areas and 13.4% in the urban communities.
The ‘safe’ seats in the urban periphery are no longer ‘safe’. The change in voting pattern reflected not just Chinese support for Pakatan, but Iban and Bidayuh support as well. In fact, what is especially interesting is that the movement in support in rural areas is more than the share in urban areas (although it is important to note that the urban areas have more voters).
More than anything, these findings point illustrate how much the ‘fixed deposit’ is no longer secure. Semi-rural and rural cracks in BN support are part of the new Sarawak, a more competitive polity that has become increasingly receptive to a stronger two-party system and critical of BN governance, especially in the areas of corruption.
The growing youth revolution
The election of young candidates in the opposition in some cases fresh out to university may come as a surprise to some, but it highlights the final important dynamic in this election, the massive movement among young voters away from the BN.
Drawing from the study of ‘saluran’ results in seven seats so far, from the Miri, Kuching and Bidayuh areas (semi-rural and urban seats), the findings suggest that a youth revolt has occurred.
In the lower polling streams, where new voters are concentrated, more than 70% of voters opposed the BN. Given the largely young crowds at rallies, especially in Kuching and Miri, this is no surprise.
We see two pattern – higher mobilisation of younger voters, an estimated 16% increase in turnout compared to older voters, and an overwhelming level of support for Pakatan among younger voters in the lower streams, with a change in trend of over 25%. In 2006, there was already stronger support for the opposition among the youth, but this appears to have significantly increased.
When one considers the high number of younger voters that did not register, estimated in the 100,000s in Sarawak, and the large number of younger voters working outstation, these results should be quite worrying for the BN indeed. The fact that the election came before Gawai (harvest festival) is also important as it is likely that when younger voters returned home possibly further movement from the BN could have occurred.
Many a younger voter in my exit interviews highlighted the fact that they convinced their parents (and grandparents) to change support. The youthful composition of voting this election compared to 2006 shows that indeed a revolution among younger voters has occurred in Sarawak.
Rise of a new Sarawak
These results are preliminary and need to further confirmed with the official results at the ‘saluran’ (polling stream) level. This analysis is drawn from the newspaper publication of results and ‘saluran’ results that have been made available immediately after the polls, so the numbers should be seen as indicators of trends rather than absolutes.
These findings collectively show that there is indeed a new Sarawak, that voters across races, across geographic areas and especially the state’s future are no longer supporting the BN to the same degree. While the two-thirds may not have been broken, profound political change did come to Sarawak.
It remains to be seen whether the opposition can continue the momentum or the BN will address the root causes of the discontent, but irrespective of this, Sarawak remains critical for the political direction of the country – now more than ever.
DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She was in Sarawak to observe the state election.