Saturday, April 23, 2011

S'wak polls: Reality check for Pakatan

S'wak polls: Reality check for Pakatan
Bridget Welsh
Apr 23, 11

COMMENT The simple fact in the wake of Saturday's polls is that Pakatan Rakyat has failed to dent the two-thirds majority in Sarawak and deliver the needed electoral gains to push Abdul Taib Mahmud from office.

Much has been made of the unfairness of the polls, the use of money and the electoral irregularities. While these issues were important, they should not be excuses that overshadow shortcomings.

NONEThe Sarawak polls serves to remind the opposition some its weaknesses and without addressing these problems, their own one-third in the Dewan Rakyat could be in jeopardy.

Unlike in Sarawak, there is no dominant Taib issue at the national level and Prime Minister Najib Razak has regained support, particularly among Malays and Indians.

Further, in many ways, the unbalanced nature of the results, with the DAP winning the lion's share of seats, has also created a new set of hurdles and it points to a growing unevenness within the opposition itself.

In the aftermath of the polls, the opposition faces the stark reality that it needs to move from a campaign of promising "change" to actual delivery.

Managing expectations

The first challenge is one of managing expectations. There is tension in the opposition between those who believe the target should be national power and those who see gains as an incremental process.

This played out in Sarawak, where the goal posts were moved during the campaign from denying two-thirds majority to taking power in Sarawak.

Unlike in March 2008, where arguably the BN was unprepared for the opposition challenge, this is no longer the case. While the BN performance was not up to the par compare to the recent set of by-elections, the BN has strengthened is campaign arsenal and unlike the opposition, they achieved their target of securing the two-thirds majority.

This issue of delivery is important in that it damages the credibility of the opposition as a whole, especially its leaders. It reinforces the impression that the opposition is more concerned with winning power than the actual implementation of the promises they make.

NONEStrategically, contesting in so many seats also overstretched the opposition. This was extremely clear for PKR in particular, where it fought in 49 seats and only won three. When there is an overstretch, the impact is that it is more difficult to read the ground and to effectively reach out to voters.

This was particularly apparent given that PKR lacked the same level of on-the-ground knowledge of the BN and the comparative level of familiarity with individual constituencies that its counterpart DAP has with the seats it contested.

It is not a coincidence that PKR won Ba'Kelalan in part due to local knowledge and experience. The opposition often mistook the warm welcome of Sarawakians give visitors with genuine political support. When the final votes came in - even accounting for problems - Pakatan, and PKR especially, had misread the ground and was blinded by hope.

This was because opposition workers were talking to themselves or only to their own "side". This has been true for BN for a long time, but it has now happened to the opposition. The middle ground, the decisive undecided voters who are instrumental in any outcome, are not heard.

Gains in the next election by either side will be determined by which side can effectively capture this middle ground and their ability to avoid listening to hype.

Schism between PKR and Snap

There is no question that a two-party system is evolving in Malaysia and the Sarawak 2011 election contributes to this dynamic. Yet, there remain serious undercurrents in the relationship between Peninsular Malaysia opposition and those in Sabah and Sarawak.

We saw this play out initially in Sabah when the partnership with local leaders in PKR broke apart during the party elections last year. There remains a sense - which runs across all parties - that Peninsular Malaysians are arrogant and insensitive to local leaders and concerns.

Anwar Ibrahim arriving to open Sarawak PKR convention in Batu Kawah, near Kuching. Left is Sarawak PKR chief Baru BianThis contributed to the schism between Snap and PKR and it has left a bad aftertaste. DAP perhaps has less of this dynamic, given it has a longer tenure in Sarawak - it was there from 1978 - and its Sarawakian leaders played a key role in the campaign.

Yet, here too there are concerns about local representation. The challenge for the opposition is how to empower Sarawakians to lead the opposition, given that in a general election there will be nowhere near the level of opposition machinery and manpower that was present in the state elections.

The fact is that the opposition has alienated some local actors whose cooperation they need in order to make further gains. Snap's devastating losses ironically do not help to address the underlying concerns for greater local empowerment. The last-minute negotiations, name calling and character assassinations all weakened the opposition campaign, especially PKR.

Part of the problem lies with the different vision mentioned above, but part of it involves the individuals who just do not understand East Malaysians or adequately respect them. It is important to appreciate differences in outlook and priorities and find shared concerns.

The bottom line is that Sabah and Sarawak are the fulcrum in winning national power, and East Malaysians know it. They will only support something in which they can be an integral part of.

Acid test for S'wakian Pakatan leaders

Now more than ever, there are more demands being placed on the new Sarawakian leaders, especially PKR chief Baru Bian and DAP chief Wong Ho Leng. The challenge is not to just represent the seats and communities they were elected to represent, but to channel the broader sentiments of the opposition into something viable.

azlanPakatan ran quite an ethnically-focused campaigns and this was understandable given the comparative greater segmentation of the ethnic communities in Sarawak, yet the test now is how to move beyond narrow boundaries to reach out not only within Sarawak, but across to the Peninsular.

Opposition's outreach to the other Dayak communities and to the Malay community remains lacking. Baru, who is from the minority Lun Bawang, will also face a difficult task drawing support among the other Dayak communities.

It is obvious that Sarawak is at a crossroads politically, with a political transition coming - eventually. It is also at a crossroads economically, and arguably has been for some time. The concerns with income inequality and poverty, sustainable development, management of land and resources, job and business opportunities and the aging population are pressing.

NONESarawak's infrastructure is also sorely behind those of other Malaysian states. Too many Sarawakians are being forced to leave their own state, and the brain drain and loss of human capital is having a tremendous impact, personally on families and on the state's future prosperity as a whole.

The reality is that the Sarawak Pakatan leaders need to move beyond just identifying the problems, but proposing solutions. This is likely to come over native customary rights (NCR) issues, but this is just a first step toward moving Sarawak away from the worrying trends in its broader political economy.

Moving beyond 'change'

Many Sarawak opposition leaders won because they were credible. This was especially true for PKR in the rural and semi-rural areas. The challenge is how to maintain that credibility and not disappoint voters.

Across Malaysia, the opposition faces the issue of disappointment. The hard reality is that with the Sarawak polls, the campaign for 'change' will no longer be adequate for the coming general election.

It is not enough to just point to problems, to highlight issues of alleged corruption and potential abuse. The opposition has to illustrate what it has done in its watchdog role and in government.

NONEPenang was well-showcased in the Sarawak elections, but the issues in other states were less highlighted, especially in the PAS-governed states. The opposition platform and messages have yet to fully provide a clear positive message for voters as it relies heavily on the negative portrayal of the BN. The 'change' message is getting stale.

The opposition platform has to embrace the middle ground. Key are the issues in the economy and race relations, which have become worryingly more polarised since March 2008, in part due to heightened racial perceptions of political power. The stark reality is that the BN has the advantage in this area.

One opposition challenge is its leadership. The fact is that credibility problems - including overpromising results on Sarawak - have affected perceptions of Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim. While these issues were merely tangential in Sarawak, they do matter nationally.

Camps are quite divided on issues of the sodomy trial, sex video and a litany of other attacks. The opposition is faced with a difficult task of building the credibility of its leadership as a whole, to illustrate the full team rather than just a handful of individuals.

Najib too faces this challenge as he had yet to showcase his team, but despite a poor start, he has gained some ground and support. The fact is that the attacks on Anwar have had an impact, largely negative (although there has been some backlash on the sex video debacle given the doubts about the actors involved) and this has yet to be addressed.

Coalition imbalance

The Sarawak results reflect an imbalance within the opposition. PAS lost all is seats and this follows its losses in recent by-elections. There are concerns they are losing the Malay ground.

While PKR did gain seats and has a group of strong credible Sarawak leaders, they underperformed. And while the DAP won a larger share of support, there is now concern with its growing power within Pakatan.

NONEWhile I believe all parties made gains in support as shown in my earlier piece and illustrated by Wong Teck Chi's work on Miri and Ong Kian Ming's rigorous analysis as well (although we have some differences due to methodology and sources of data), there is a sense that not all parties are gaining. This will be difficult to manage.

It was much easier after March 2008 when all sides gained. Unevenness creates unease. This dynamic will test the opposition coalition, within individual parties and collectively across parties.

The easy answer is that the DAP is gaining because of strong Chinese support. There is truth to this, but this is too simplistic, in that the DAP won more support across races and all but one of its gains involved changes in Dayak support.

Individual parties within the opposition, especially PAS and PKR, now are faced with the need to address and assess their campaigns.

Two areas were crucial beyond the issue of overstretch above - greater engagement with younger voters and clearer articulation of an alternative vision. To get to this broader issue, these parties have to handle the internal party fissures and divisions, which were openly present during the party polls in PKR last year, which has continued to percolate, and potentially emerge within PAS at their party polls in June.

Tough path ahead

BN's issues of survival and the hard decisions it needs to make are clear and not easy. For Pakatan, the decisions over campaign messages, strategy, leadership and collaboration are as challenging, perhaps even more so given that the opposition is facing a stronger BN.

To ignore the shortcomings and not transform will make the gains in Sarawak evaporate as they did after the 1987 state elections, when there was a split within the BN ranks. As Malaysia slowly moves toward a two-party system, the path ahead will likely continue to be filled with uncertainty.

Gains will only be made by the side that genuinely listens, reaches out, and offers viable leaders and solutions that improve the quality of life of all ordinary Malaysians across race, age, gender, states, and economic background.

Sarawak has shown that for both sides, the path ahead will be tough indeed.

Sweet and sour aftermath of S'wak polls

DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University and she can be reached at She was in Sarawak to observe the state election and expresses special thanks to Sarawakians across the political spectrum for their kindness, openness and warm hospitality.

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