KUCHING, April 16 — The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) will retain Sarawak today but will end the race with Pakatan Rakyat (PR) dangerously close at its heels, say analysts.
Their polls projections, which were cautious at first, have now grown significantly optimistic for the opposition force, which is contesting in its first-ever state election under the PR umbrella.
Three analysts told The Malaysian Insider yesterday that BN was likely en route to yet another electoral victory in the hornbill state but the contest for two-thirds majority was too close to call.
Such a prediction would have been laughed off at campaign kick-off last week but consistent reports of massive rally turnouts and talk of rising anger against the state’s powerful Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud have now drawn a question mark over BN’s ability to maintain its near-dominance in the 71-seat state assembly.
When at first even PR leaders admitted their goals would be impossible to achieve, the final day of campaigning yesterday saw Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim declaring that the newborn alliance would far surpass its targets.
“We are very confident we are going to go far beyond that, we are pushing to deny BN its monopoly of the state,” he said during a press conference yesterday afternoon.
According to sources, PR is now betting largely on victory in 34 state seats, with DAP winning in 13 of the 15 seats it is contesting, followed by PKR’s 19 of 49 seats and PAS’s two of five state seats.
PR needs to win in at least 24 state seats to deny BN its customary two-thirds majority, and 36 seats to form a new government in Sarawak.
The pact’s wins are expected to come largely from the urban and semi-urban state seats, particularly in constituencies within the main townships and city and their outskirts.
Analysts were similarly as optimistic over PR’s chances, pointing out that the usually conservative political culture in Sarawak had changed significantly in the past week.
Voters, they said, were now not only more politically aware but were also willing to unreservedly declare their grouses with the ruling administration, an uncharacteristic trait in the past.
Tonight’s outcome, said the analysts, would bank on how successful BN’s use of its entire state and federal government machinery has been in convincing voters to stick to the ruling pact.
When polling opens at 1,749 centres across the state this morning, 979,796 voters will face the crucial decision of whether to “vote for change” or vote for “transformation”, the two messages spread by PR and BN over the 10-day campaign period.
Universiti Malaysia Sarawak lecturer Dr Faisal Syam Hazis, who has been criss-crossing Sarawak to observe the heated campaign, said that over the past 10 days voters across all different communities had shared one major grouse — their disenchantment with Taib or “Pek Moh”.
“The message is very clear. People are echoing the call for change and I can see this even in the Dayak areas.
“Many are really disappointed with the BN... you can sense that sentiment. Promises were made to them to provide water and roads, to give them employment opportunities, but they were only made during elections,” he said.
Faisal said PR’s performance would bank heavily on the protest vote — constituents who were upset with BN but who did not necessarily subscribe to the opposition’s policies.
But the professor said this would not bear any similarity to the protest vote in the tsunami of 2008 as Sarawak’s voter dynamics and political situation were significantly different from those of states in the peninsula.
“The issues are different here so let me put it like this — I think the opposition will win more seats and could deny two-thirds but it is too close to call,” he said.
Faisal also noted that another major factor was the possibility of vote-rigging and election irregularities, which the opposition has predicted would likely occur today.
The pact has already complained of cash handouts allegedly given by BN agents to voters, ranging between RM100 for each voter and up to RM2,000. Villages in the interior areas, they claimed, were even given RM6,000 allocations.
“And look, PR is not only up against BN’s already massive election machinery, it is also up against the entire federal and state government machinery.
“You can observe how this has been constantly used in rural areas; Kemas, the Education Department, the police, all government departments and the deployment of the entire federal and state Cabinet ministers to help in the polls,” he said.
Faisal described this as the “politics of Panadol”, noting that this would likely cost PR many seats.
“This is when although people are unhappy, these instant-noodle projects and handouts will convince them to vote for BN but after the polls, the suffering continues,” he said.
He claimed that if PR and BN had entered the contest on a level-playing field, it was without a doubt that PR could deny BN its two-thirds majority and even have a fighting chance to win the state.
Universiti Putra Malaysia lecturer Professor Jayum Anak Jawan was less optimistic of PR’s chances but agreed with his fellow academic that the pact would perform significantly better than it had in 2006.
In the 2006 polls, the DAP won in only six seats and PKR in one.
Jayum admitted that the opposition force had put up a fierce fight in the polls and had made inroads in many areas, particularly among the urban and semi-urban communities.
“I see quite a lot of people who are excited about the polls, especially around the major towns like in Kuching, Sibu and Miri.
“But the Bidayuh seats and the Malay/Melanaus, are not so easy… although many areas are said to be volatile as their BN candidates are new faces,” he said.
But Jayum predicted that this would not translate into a resounding victory for PR and tonight’s results would bring no surprises.
He explained that many of the local communities like the Malay/Melanau, the Ibans and Bidayuhs were a sentimental and loyal lot and had an emotional attachment to their representatives in government.
“They may be unhappy and complain that their land had been stolen but at crunch time, they will vote for BN. Don’t ask me why, it is baffling to me too,” he said.
Jayum said more was needed to “shake” the Dayaks out from political complacency as they were not likely to “jump ship”.
“On that basis, I am not confident that they will abandon the ruling coalition completely,” he said.
Universiti Teknologi Mara Associate Professor Shaharudin Badaruddin agreed with his comrades, saying that this was by far the most heated state contest he had ever witnessed.
He explained that in the previous two state polls in 2001 and 2006, voters had generally stayed in the comfort of their homes and went about their daily businesses instead of joining in the campaign festivities by attending political events.
The professor expressed awe at the vast changes, describing it as a “strong undercurrent” sweeping the state.
“It is quite remarkable to see how accepting these people are... I have seen lorries driven by Chinese displaying PAS flags.
“I tried snapping pictures of PKR flags on display once and a Bidayuh woman scolded me, warning me against defacing the flags.
“And this is in the rural areas. There is also a protest even from the Malay community... so easily, they can get more than 19 seats, or perhaps, deny BN two-thirds,” he said.
Polling begins at 8am today and ends at 5pm.
The Election Commission expects the final vote tally to be announced by 11pm.
There are 979,796 registered voters in Sarawak, with the Chinese making up the largest community at 31.5 per cent, the Ibans 29 per cent, Malay/Melanaus at 27.5 per cent, Bidayuhs eight per cent, Orang Ulus 3.7 per cent and others 0.26 per cent.