Why Pakatan failed to deny BN 2/3rd majority in Sarawak
COMMENT I did not have time to write a prediction piece for the recently concluded Sarawak state election because I was heavily involved in the campaign this time, rather than analysing it as an outside observer.
But I did tweet and put on Facebook (and placed a few friendly wagers) that the BN would lose its two-thirds majority by failing to win at least 47 seats. I was, not for the first time and certainly not for the last time, wrong.
In this first of my two-part analysis of this election, I will quickly lay out the basis for my initial optimism and then proceed to explain, using the election results, why my prediction did not materialise.
I will pay particular attention to the very complicated voting patterns exhibited by the various non-Muslim bumiputera groups because these voters were, and will likely be, the swing voters come the next general election.
Why I thought it was possible
My initial sense of optimism that the BN could possibly lose its two-thirds majority in the state assembly arose way before jitters started manifesting itself among those in the ruling coalition during the course of the 10-day campaign.
I had identified a list of 35 potentially vulnerable seats, not including the eight seats in non-BN hands when the state legislature was dissolved. These seats fell into four categories.
The first category comprises of 15 seats which the BN won with less than 60% of the popular vote in the 2006 state elections.
These include four Chinese-majority seats - N39 Repok, N46 Dudong, N49 Pelawan and N64 Pujut - but also include a number of Malay/Melanau seats - N20 Sadong Jaya, N24 Beting Maro and N30 Saribas - as well as Dayak and Orang Ulu seats - N19 Kedup, N25 Balai Ringin, N26 Bukit Begunan, N29 Batang Ai, N57 Belaga, N60 Kemena and N70 Ba'kelalan.
I also included the Iban-majority seat of Engkilili in this category, since the BN lost this seat in 2006 but subsequently 'regained' it back when the Snap candidate, Johnny Rayong, switched parties and joined SUPP.
The second category comprises of seats which the BN won with more than 60% of the vote in 2006 but had favourable demographics for the opposition, they being Chinese majority. The three seats in this category are N13 Batu Kawah, N47 Bawang Assan and N63 Piasau.
The third category comprises of seats which experienced a more than 10% decrease in the level of BN support from the 2006 state election to the 2008 general election.
This includes the Iban-majority seat of N27 Simanggang, which experienced a 31.2% decrease in the level of BN support from 83.3% to 52.1%, and N56 Baleh, an Iban-majority seat where voters have been affected by the Bakun dam construction, where the level of BN support plunged by 26.2%, from 89.5% to 62.3%. There are 11 seats which fall under the third category.
The fourth and last category features seats which the BN won by more than 60% in 2006 but which have been affected by new campaign issues.
Unhappiness over the treatment of the local population as a result of dam-building activities in Bengoh and Baram could have potentially affected voters in six seats - N1 Opar, N16 Bengoh, N17 Tarat, N18 Tebedu (Bengoh) and N66 Marudi and N67 Telang Usan (Baram).
For the opposition to deny the BN the two-thirds majority, it needed to retain all eight of its seats and win another 16 out of the 35 potentially vulnerable seats. Tripling the number of opposition seats was a tall order, but the ingredients for a potential tsunami were present.
A chief minister in Abdul Taib Mahmud, who had been in power in the state for over 30 years; the growing body of evidence of the wealth that he and his family had amassed, both in Sarawak and abroad, through website Sarawak Report and the dissemination of this information through Radio Free Sarawak and through word of mouth; the growing disputes over NCR (native customary land) as a result of aggressive expansion by Peninsular-based oil palm companies into Sarawak; the evictions and displacement of many local communities as a result of dam-building activities; the stamping of the Al Kitab and the ban on the use of 'Allah' by the local Christian community; all these were reasons to think that the growing urban discontent against Taib and the BN which was already evident among the voters in the Sibu by-election, could penetrate into many of the rural and semi-rural areas, including in some of these potentially vulnerable seats.
But this was not to be. The opposition managed to retain seven out of the eight seats it held, and won another nine seats, two of which - Krian (won by PKR) and Pelagus (won by an independent) - were not on my list of 35 potentially vulnerable seats.
What went wrong then for the opposition? Or to put it in another way, what didn't go right for the opposition?
I will leave the issue of party organisation, seat negotiations and multi-cornered contests and how they affected the election results to Part 2 of my analysis. Here, I will only undertake a numerical analysis of the election results.
Analysis of voting trends
The first reason as to why the BN was able to keep its two-thirds majority is that the anticipated swing among the non-Muslim bumiputera (NMB) voters was not big enough for the opposition to win many of the NMB majority seats.
Table 2 below shows the overall BN support and the estimated BN support by ethnic group for the 2006 and 2011 state elections.
To simplify my analysis, I grouped all the major NMB ethnic groups - the Bidayuhs, the Ibans and the various groups which are lumped together as Orang Ulu - into a single category.
A more accurate way of estimating the level of BN support would be to use voting results and ethnic composition figures at the polling stream level, but because I do not have such data for all of the seats, I have settled on the next best option, which is to estimate the BN support by ethnic group using state seat level data.
The results in Table 2 (right) confirms that the reality 'on the ground', so to speak. The decrease in the level of BN support among the Chinese community was the largest, from 45.1% in 2006 to 25.5% in 2011, representing a drop of 19.6%.
This makes sense since it would not have been possible for the opposition to increase their majority in many of their existing seats by such large margins and to win additional seats, which the SUPP had won with more than 70% of the popular vote in 2006, without a significant swing in the level of BN support among the Chinese.
The NMB support for the BN fell by slightly more than 7% from 63.9% in 2006 to 56.7% in 2011. But unlike the fall in the Chinese support for the BN, the overall fall in the NMB support for the BN did not exhibit a consistent pattern across all the NMB-majority seats.
While one can safely conclude that the Chinese support for the BN fell in most, if not all, of the Chinese-majority seats, the picture for the NMB-majority seats is much more complicated.
Among the 30 seats where the NMB voters comprise more than 50%, there were 22 seats where the level of support for the BN fell and the average fall was 12.8% for these seats. But there were also eight seats in which the level of BN support actually increased, by an average of 12.1%.
Tables 3 and 4 list out the seats in which the level of BN support fell (22 seats) and where it increased (eight seats).
Among the seats listed in Table 3 (right) are many of the potentially vulnerable seats listed in Table 1 above, including N1 Opar, N2 Tasik Biru, N16 Bengoh, N17 Tarat, N19 Kedup, N27 Simanggang and N67 Telung Usan - all of which were won by the BN with less than 60% of the popular vote.
With another 5% swing in the Iban vote, eight of the seats in Table 3 would have gone to the opposition.
At the same time, there were also a number of potentially vulnerable NMB-majority seats that, surprisingly, went into the safe column for the BN (Table 4 below).
These included N25 Balai Ringin and N26 Bukit Begunan as well as N57 Belaga, a seat which the BN won with only 42% of the vote in a multi-cornered fight. The BN made an impressive gain of 24.9% in Engkilili, a seat which the same candidate had won under the Snap banner in 2006 with only 46% of the popular vote.
The BN Batang Ai incumbent also consolidated the gains made during the 2009 by-election by winning 71% of the vote - an increase of 6% from the 65% he obtained two years ago.
It was somewhat surprising that BN made gains in two out of the three state seats in the Sri Aman constituency (N25 Balai Ringin and N26 Bukit Begunan) given numerous reports of land grabs in this area and the presence of two relatively well-known PKR candidates, one of whom was the former state representative for Balai Ringin (Ibi Uding) and the other, a former MP for Sri Aman (Jimmy Donald).
The voting trend among the NMB voters is further complicated by variations in the semi-urban seats with a high percentage of NMB voters.
While it would not have been possible for the opposition to achieve its sizeable gains in seats such as N13 Batu Kawah (21% NMB), N40 Meradong (40% NMB) and N59 Kidurong (35% NMB) without at least some decrease in the BN support among the NMB voters, a quick comparison of the NMB-majority voting districts in N46 Dudong (37% NMB) and N47 Bawang Assan (33% NMB) showed that the NMB support for the BN actually increased in these areas.
No statewide swing among non-Muslim bumis
What conclusions can we then draw in regard to the NMB voting patterns in 2011?
Firstly, that we there was not the same kind of statewide swing against the BN that was seen among the Chinese voters. The NMB voters comprise of different ethnic groups and are not as cohesive as the Chinese and most importantly, are not moved to vote in respond in a uniform manner to the common issues of NCR land rights, land grabs and relocation and displacement due to dam building.
In other words, the salience of land grabs affecting Iban voters in one area will not move Iban voters in other, perhaps even neighbouring areas, from voting against the BN. Only if these issues seriously affect the majority of voters in one area, will they vote against the BN in significant numbers and only in that affected area.
The second conclusion which can be drawn is that the candidate factor makes much more of a difference in the NMB-majority seats compared to the urban seats. This is not to say that personality issues are not important in the urban areas.
One of the reasons why DAP's Chong Chieng Jen managed to win the Kota Sentosa seat despite the presence of 3,000 postal votes is his popularity among his constituents. But the magnitude of difference is much greater in the non-urban non-Chinese majority seats.
A candidate who was serviced his constituents well, including possibly resolving some of the land issues, would be able to stem the tide of a swing against the BN. This would explain some of the results in the seats in Table 4, where the support for the BN actually increased.
At the same time, one cannot assume that a former state assemblyperson or MP, who is now competing as an opposition candidate, would be a better candidate. More often than not, voters would remember the failure to deliver constituency services rather than past services rendered, which is probably why some of these candidates were dropped by BN in the first place.
On the other hand, well-financed and new opposition candidates who have not contested before but nonetheless have worked the ground consistently in the period leading up to the state elections may produce electoral shocks as was the case with Ali Biju (PKR) in Krian and George Lagong (right) (Independent) in Pelagus.
The third conclusion I would draw is that one cannot assume that the NMB areas which are located near town centres such as Sibu, Miri and Kuching would automatically be more inclined to vote for an opposition candidate.
Many of the polling stations in the state seats of Dudong and Bawang Assan, although located about an hour from Sibu town (by boat or by car), still do not have running water or electricity.
If given a choice between a Chinese DAP candidate who cannot speak their language and who cannot provide them with monetary incentives or development projects and a BN Chinese candidate who can give them both, at least two out of three Iban voters would choose the latter.
The situation here is somewhat reversed from Peninsular Malaysia where one would expect voters in the urban areas who are from one race to be more likely to vote for an opposition candidate of another race compared to those in the less urbanised areas.
Finally, I briefly discuss voting patterns among the Malay/Melanaus (MM). Table 2 shows that the BN support among the MM actually increased slightly from 78.3% to 79.6%, an increase of about 1.3%. This should not be that surprising given the strength of the PBB in these areas and also the continued popularity of the chief minister among the Malay/Melanaus.
But even here, there are some differences in the changes of support for the BN in the MM-majority seats. In the 21 MM-majority seats, 13 experienced a fall in the level of BN support, by an average of 7.0%, while eight experienced an increase by an average of 8.1%.
Even though the BN support among the Malay/Melanaus increased slightly, there were more MM majority seats in which the level of BN support fell because of the presence of Chinese and NMB voters in these seats.
Tables 5 and 6 below lists out the seats in which the level of BN support fell (13 seats) and where it increased (eight seats).
Among the MM-majority seats where level of BN support fell was N24 Beting Maro, a seat which PAS stood a chance of winning. However, this was the only MM-majority seat in Table 5 where the BN's popular vote stood at less than 60% in the 2011 state election.
The BN made impressive gains in many of the MM-majority seats listed in Table 5 (above), registering double-digit gains in four out of the eight state seats.
Among the seats in Table 5 are N20 Sadong Jaya and N30 Saribas, two MM-majority seats which the BN won by less than 60% of the popular vote in 2006 but are now firmly in the safe column after gains of 13.4% and 13.5% by the BN, respectively.
Unless there is a serious split within the PBB as a result of a leadership tussle after Taib leaves, it is hard to imagine the opposition winning any of the MM-majority seats in the next state election.
More in-depth study required
This long article has barely scratched the surface of the complexity of Sarawakian politics.
Only a much more in-depth academic study can uncover the reasons as to why BN performed better or worse in many of these constituencies, especially those outside the urban centres including the service record of BN incumbents, possible sabotage by dropped candidates, the salience of local issues such as land grabs and dam building, the financing and on the ground presence of opposition candidates, just to mention a few.
The purpose of this article is to provide some facts and figures that will hopefully help improve the overall understanding of Sarawak politics and elections.
Where there are differences is in the magnitude of the swing against the BN among the different ethnic groups. This article maintains that the Chinese vote swing against the BN was the largest, followed by the NMB voters.
Even though the overall figures show a decrease in the level of BN support among the NMB voters and a slight increase among the MM voters, there is significant variation in the level of BN support within the NMB and MM-majority seats.
The next part of this analysis will discuss the impact of the state polls and the challenges faced by both the BN and the opposition parties ahead of the 13th general election.
ONG KIAN MING holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University. He is currently pioneering a Master in Public Policy (MPP) program at UCSI University. He can be reached at email@example.com. He was based in Sibu during the state election.