Malaysia by-elections: Opposition Victory Call?

In March 2008, the political tsunami that occurred in Peninsular Malaysia when the opposition broke the national ruling coalition's 50-year two thirds majority in parliament was barely felt by the state of Sarawak.

The Sarawak government didn't take part in the national elections as the last state election had been held just two years earlier. It must hold state elections before 2011. A by-election tomorrow in the sleepy constituency of Batang Ai could mark the beginning of a political tsunami for the state of Sarawak and may well have effects beyond to peninsular Malaysia itself, where the Barisan Nasional is in a stiff battle for two other by-elections. All three are regarded as a test of newly installed Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's political power. Najib just last Friday took over from Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud in particular has been losing popularity. Batang Ai could be described as a perfect seat for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, with a constituency that is more than 90 percent ethnic Iban, whose discontent is high over lack of compensation for the loss of lands to the Batang Ai dam and the lack of development. Despite presence of a hydro-electric dam, parts of the constituency don't even have electricity.

Life was already getting tough for the Barisan. In 2006 state elections, the Sarawak government lost nine seats to the opposition against only two or three losses in the past. The 2006 state elections could indeed serve as a warning sign of things to come. In the longer term, a victorious by-election could signify a change that will become very pronounced with general state elections expected to take place in 2011.

To mark the importance of the Batang Ai race, Taib Mahmud and his entire cabinet showed up on nomination day, 28 March. The opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition came out in full force too. On the Pakatan side, PKR members were joined by the Selangor chief minister, Khalid Ibrahim, as well as colleagues from Sabah. The Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia also sent representatives to lend support to the Pakatan alliance. Anwar himself was reportedly travelling throughout Batang Ai on 1 April. Hence the obscure town is now the life of Sarawak.

What are some of the factors that we should be looking out for in this by-election? What could lead to a PKR victory? Are chances skewed in favor of the Barisan?

Irritation is rising over development. In 2008, 12 additional dams were proposed in Sarawak with work already started on the new Murum dam last September. Smeltering plants, monoculture and palm oil plantations cannot continue unchecked because of the public perception that the economic fruits arising from these endeavours have been skewed to favor powerful politicians, business people, and those attached to Taib.

Conflicts have also arisen from the conversion of native customary land into land for dam construction, and the development of large scale commercial agriculture and oil palm plantations. In some instances, this has met with resistance from indigenous communities who were initially not aware that their native land rights had been revoked until construction had begun.

Second, this by-election will be an important test of the level of support by ethnic Dayaks for Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). If PKR wins, this will represent an important victory for Anwar and his faction. That Pakatan Rakyat is making inroads into Sarawak and may eventually increase its chances of becoming a formidable opposition party, if not eventually becoming the ruling party.

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Pakatan Rakyat has also promised that a Dayak would take the helm of the Sarawak state government and be Chief Minister if Pakatan wins the Sarawak state elections in 2011. The last Dayak Chief Minister was Stephen Ningkan (1963-66) and, Dayak nationalism, although simmering, has not been united enough for a change in political leadership in the state.

A larger share of the oil royalty has also been promised by Anwar. This would not benefit indigenous communities directly but be of overall benefit for Sarawakians though spillovers like improved electricity supplies, roads and highways, and medical facilities.

PKR has also promised to treat native rights with greater respect. The PKR in March called on the state government to issue land titles to the 400 households from 20 longhouses which were resettled as a result of the construction of the dam in 1984/85, dating 25 years back. These are some of the pluses supporting a possible PKR win on the Batang Ai by-election.

Logistical challenges however favour the BN which has a fleet of helicopters, boats and four-wheel-drive vehicles. PKR will have to use slightly different campaigning methods as the community of Batang Ai is isolated and communities living in longhouses are far apart from one another. As such, PKR must modify its usual internet-savvy campaigning techniques and revert to standard campaigning of travelling through this difficult terrain. This would be quite a challenging task given that the election will be taking place tomorrow, giving just a few days for full scale campaigning to take place.

The two contenders are Jawah Gerang of PKR, a former five-term MP in Lubok Antu, who is facing off against Malcolm Mussen, a relatively unknown BN candidate. Jawah did not contest last year's parliamentary elections. He recently joined PKR together with his supporters after deserting a former BN component party.

Average incomes of the Iban in Batang Ai have been reported to be around RM 2,000 per year, an average of about RM 150 per month against per capita gross national income in Sarawak in 2006 of about RM 22,000. Obviously, the benefits of development have yet to filter down to communities in the area and this will be a sore point working again the BN win.

The Batang Ai Dam, currently the largest operating dam in Sarawak still has unresolved issues. It was reported in the Malaysian media that, at present, among the many socio-economic woes, that telephone lines are still insufficient, electric supplies are irregular, water supplies infrequent, roads are in bad shape, and medical facilities still inadequate in the Batang Ai constituency. Such conditions have persisted even though the Batang Ai hydro-electric dam has been running since 1985.

Will such negatives lead the electorate in Batang Ai to shift from the BN to support the opposition? Given the present situation, it is difficult to hazard a guess. The logistical challenges presented by Batang Ai represent an obstacle to PKR which is not so campaign savvy like the BN in difficult rural terrain.

However, if PKR can overcome these challenges and campaign successfully in the limited number of days that it has, and spread the word of its pro-Dayak stance, the reinstatement of a Dayak chief minister in the next state elections in 2011, its support of native customary rights, and importantly convince the Iban communities of its sincerity to promote equitable development for all communities, then PKR may be able to translate its present efforts into victory for the party on 7 April 2009. Whatever the outcome, this by-election will be closely watched by Malaysians all over as a barometer of the support for the PKR.

Lee Poh Onn is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. The views expressed here are his own unless otherwise stated.