KUALA LUMPUR, May 18 — Last weekend’s Sibu by-election results appear to suggest a growing divide in Sarawak which could see urban voters going for Pakatan Rakyat (PR) while rural residents stick with Barisan Nasional (BN) in the coming state polls, analysts say.
They concede while PR via DAP have made inroads in this BN fixed deposit, rural voters are largely still supporting the ruling federal coalition — resulting in a close fight in Sibu.
“Sibu results is a bellwether as far as urban seats in Sarawak are concerned. It wouldn’t have the same effect in rural areas, look at how the Melanaus and the Ibans voted. The Bumiputera community (still) seem to be firmly in favour of BN. It may be reflective at how state elections pan out,” said Ibrahim Suffian, polling expert and director of Merdeka Centre.
In an interview with The Malaysian Insider Ibrahim predicted that PR would have a tough time getting support from rural areas, while at the same time BN will find it difficult to try and convince urban areas to vote for them, similar to how voting trends are across the South China Sea in the Malay peninsula.
Last Sunday’s by-election saw both camps pulling all stops to woo voters, with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak himself making a last-minute pitch in a DAP stronghold, when he announced an allocation of RM5 million for flood-mitigation projects in Rejang Park.
BN’s efforts, however were not replicated in the results.
“The federal government’s approach of giving out goodies as means of instant gratification of voters does not work for urban areas, (it has) limited effect particularly with the Chinese.
“It’s a matter of psychology, grievances and disappointments of the Chinese community has towards the BN in general have affected voters and their anger far outweighs the money thrown at them,” quipped Ibrahim.
Ibrahim’s concerns were shared by political scientist Wong Chin Huat who believed that the handing out of goodies strategy by BN “backfired” especially in urban areas.
“DAP commanded more than 70 percent of Chinese support, and managed to make little inroads into Malay areas, won some support in areas like Nangka. There was little support for DAP in rural areas like the Iban areas.
“Results of the Sibu by-election would delay the dates for state elections because now there (is) no guarantee BN can stay in power,” claimed Wong, who is a lecturer in Monash University Sunway campus in Petaling Jaya.
Strong discontent towards long-serving Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud also played a major part in BN’s failure to retain control of the Sibu seat.
The Foochows — the predominant Chinese community in the timber town of Sibu — are said to be against Taib, partially resulting in more Chinese votes swinging towards DAP.
“I have been told that BN’s strength in Sarawak has been dwindling even before the Sibu by-election. People are looking for a new leadership. The Foochows are no longer close to Taib Mahmud, he was strong in the past,” said historian Tan Sri Dr. Khoo Kay Kim.
Khoo told The Malaysian Insider that BN had “made a mistake by playing the race issue” in Sarawak.
“Problems in Peninsular Malaysia do not necessarily affect Sarawakians, this is what they overlooked,” said Khoo.
Taib was also reportedly absent throughout the BN campaigning period in Sibu.
“Taib has been in power for too long... 29 years after Taib, they are giving BN (an) early signal, they want change. It’s a referendum for state polls,” said USM political analyst Dr. Sivamurugan Pandian.
The university lecturer claimed that DAP had managed to “manipulate national key issues such as the Allah controversy as well as the Bible issue” in order to garner optimum Chinese support.
“If we look, almost 70 percent of Chinese support DAP. Chinese voters (are) well-informed in urban areas. Urban voters (are) more concerned with other issues than development.
“They want something beyond what the government can give them. This was the same strategy used by DAP in Penang,” Sivamurugan told The Malaysian Insider.
He however disagreed that the Sibu results was an indicator of future state polls, and stressed that the trend was only applicable to Chinese-majority areas.
“I don’t think the results can be replicated in the state elections. However its a trend that can work in areas where the Chinese are the majority,” quipped Sivamurugan.
The DAP pulled off a surprise win in the Sibu by-election, defeating BN’s SUPP by 398 votes after a closely-fought eight-day campaign.
DAP state chairman Wong Ho Leng polled 18,845 votes compared to BN candidate Robert Lau’s 18,447 votes. The margin of victory was just a little more than the 395 spoilt votes. It was also the Bukit Assek’s fourth tilt at the Sibu seat.