Sarawak state polls boost Malaysia’s ruling coalition, expose opposition weakness: Analyst

Leaders of the Gabungan Parti Sarawak coalition wave flags after winning a landslide victory in Saturday’s Sarawak state elections.
PHOTO: Malay Mail

A landslide victory in a crucial state election for a coalition of parties allied to Malaysia's federal government has strengthened Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob's ruling alliance and exposed the opposition's weaknesses, analysts said.

Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) on Saturday retained its hold on power in Malaysia's largest state by capturing 76 of the Sarawak state assembly's 82 seats, bettering their performance in 2016 by four seats.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, only managed to secure six seats — a drubbing that analysts said will lead to renewed calls for veteran opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to step aside.

"[GPS' victory] will boost Ismail Sabri indirectly because he doesn't have to worry about Sarawak in the next general election with the momentum built by GPS," said James Chin, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania.

Sarawak has 31 seats in Malaysia's 222-seat parliament — nearly 14 per cent of the total and more than any other state.

Chin, who hails from Sarawak, said he now thinks GPS will do "even better than the 19 seats they currently hold" in the next general election, which some pundits expect to be held as early as next year.

"They are likely to push for 27-28 out of 31 parliament seats. So that's an indirect boost to Ismail Sabri's coalition," he said.

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Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs think tank, said GPS' victory "certainly strengthens the so-called Malay-Muslim majority government" of Ismail Sabri as GPS is an "ardent and unwavering coalition partner".

"But whether Ismail Sabri gets to continue to rule such a government remains to be seen," said Oh.

"The opposition did not do well because there's a lack of substantive issues to campaign on" said Oh Ei Sun, Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Ismail Sabri is vice-president of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), a dominant member of Malaysia's ruling coalition. Umno did not contest the Sarawak state polls, opting to give its backing to GPS instead.

Azmi Hassan, a political analyst at the University of Technology Malaysia, said GPS' victory would not only give a boost to the ruling coalition but also Ismail Sabri's standing.

"The people of Sarawak want to keep the status quo. GPS has a good relationship with the federal government, and that's the main reason people of Sarawak gave a huge mandate to GPS," he said.

GPS chairman Abang Johari Tun Openg was sworn in as Sarawak's chief minister for the second time late on Saturday night. The coalition comprises Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, Sarawak United People's Party, Parti Rakyat Sarawak and the Progressive Democratic Party.

Tasmania University's Chin described GPS' victory as a "complete landslide" and said it showed that the state's voters were happy with Abang Johari's performance as chief minister, as well as his coalition's "Sarawak first" philosophy.

The Sarawak result came just days after the ruling coalition managed to secure the two-thirds support it needed in parliament to amend clauses of the federal constitution that could pave the way for Sarawak and Sabah to be restored as equal partners in the country's federation - the two having been downgraded to states by a 1976 constitutional amendment.

Azmi, the political analyst, said this had played an important role in GPS' victory as it could claim the amendments were passed because of its hard work, diligence and good relations with the federal government. It could also lead to a debate about the reallocation of parliamentary seats now, he said.

Singapore Institute of International Affairs' Oh, however, described the move as "mainly a name change".

"The details of what it means to be elevated to equal partner still need to be fleshed out in future amendments to the constitution. More detailed laws need to be enacted," said Oh, who comes from Sabah. "At this point it does not give greater autonomy to the two states."

Opposition failings

The opposition's resounding defeat in Saturday's Sarawak polls was "bad news for Anwar", said Tasmania University's Chin, coming as it did on the back of an earlier thrashing in last month's Melaka state elections.

Singapore Institute of International Affairs's Oh said the latest defeat will renew calls for Anwar to step down as leader of opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan.

The Democratic Action Party, which is part of the coalition, was once a dominant opposition force in Sarawak but only managed to win two seats on Saturday.

The remaining four seats were won by Parti Sarawak Bersatu, a relatively new political party based in the state.

"The opposition did not do well because there's a lack of substantive issues to campaign on," said Oh. "Voter turnout was also very low, as low as 40 per cent in some urban seats."

Heavy rain that inundated Sarawak on polling day was also a factor. Ismail Sabri's government is currently contending with Malaysia's worst flooding in years, which drove tens of thousands of people from their homes over the weekend.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.