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Poll results blow for Najib, say analysts

The just-concluded Sarawak polls is seen as an important gauge of
popularity for Najib, who must face a general election of his own.
By M Jegathesan

KUALA LUMPUR: Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is unlikely to call snap elections after a bruising state poll in which his ruling coalition lost ground to the opposition in a traditional stronghold, analysts said.

The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition held onto its crucial two-thirds majority after
Saturday’s vote in Sarawak but the opposition had its best result for nearly a quarter century in the resource-rich state on the Borneo island.

The vote was seen as an important gauge of popularity for Najib, who has dished out money for rural development.

Some observers said it was the most crucial test for the BN since the 2008 general election when the opposition seized a third of parliamentary seats and threatened the BN’s half-century grip on power.

In Saturday’s Sarawak election, the BN clinched 55 seats while Anwar Ibrahim’s opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance won 15. An independent candidate took one seat. Previously the BN had held 63 seats and the opposition eight.

The two-thirds majority effectively allows the BN coalition to pass legislation without any obstruction.

But political analyst Khoo Kai Peng said Najib had suffered a “massive” dip in the popular vote compared with BN’s performance at 2006 state polls in Sarawak.

“The popular vote for BN dipped by eight percentage points to 55%. This is a massive number for a state which has been a traditional BN fortress,” he told AFP.

Khoo said the results showed that the crucial parliamentary seats in Sarawak and neighbouring Sabah that the BN needs to stay in power could be at risk.

There are 31 parliamentary seats in Sarawak and BN holds 29. In Sabah, BN has 24 out of 25 seats. The opposition only has three in both the states.

Both sides found positives in the result.

Najib described the victory as a “strong mandate” to rule Sarawak, although he was cagey on whether he would call snap polls.

Big swing

Anwar told AFP his opposition alliance had performed “extremely well”, as ethnic Chinese, Malays and other indigenous people voted for the grouping across the huge rugged state.

“The result has energised the opposition ahead of national polls which may be called in mid-2012,” he said.

It was the opposition’s best performance in 24 years in Sarawak as it rode a wave of discontent against the long reign of 74-year-old chief minister Taib Mahmud and Christian anger over the government’s attempt to restrict bibles printed in Malay.

Khoo said Najib had emerged bruised from the poll, which is regarded as a key barometer on how voters in peninsular Malaysia and Sabah state, which neighbours Sarawak, may vote in the national election.

The BN’s losses in some rural constituencies was due to displeasure over the state government’s action to seize ancestral land, he said.

“There was a big swing of votes in the urban and rural areas to the opposition,” he added.

“Najib will not call national election this year. I think he will be pushed out by his ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) if he fails to secure a two-thirds majority (in the national election),” Khoo said.

Monash University Malaysia political scientist James Chin said Anwar galvanised the opposition by focusing on poverty and the alleged corrupt rule of Taib.

Taib has denied allegations of large-scale corruption involving his family and political allies.

Chin said opposition success in urban seats could indicate that more parliamentary seats will fall into their hands, a key factor in their bid to topple the ruling coalition.

“Najib will probably not call for elections this year as he has to sort out his economic transformation plans to bolster the economy,” he said.

Jeniri Amir, a political analyst at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, said Najib was in a quandary.

“Najib is in a dilemma. He wants an early mandate but the outcome of this poll shows that BN is in a disadvantageous position,” he said. “I think Najib will delay the polls until mid-2012.”

National elections do not need to be held until mid-2013.

Jeniri said voters’ anger against Taib, who has refused to step aside despite Najib’s cajoling, could mean the BN will lose parliamentary seats in Sarawak.

While the BN must tackle corruption and abuse of power in the state to claw back votes, support for the opposition is strong and Anwar remains a “threat to BN’s half-century grip on power”, he said.


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