When change rocked the Middle East from Tunisia to Yemen, many were quick to point out that it could not happen in Malaysia. The BN government has a stronger record of governance and, for all of the unevenness of the playing field, holds competitive elections.

Yet, as the Sarawak campaign has unfolded, it is increasingly becoming apparent that change is afoot. The 30-year tenure of Abdul Taib Mahmud – closely paralleling the length of Hosni Mubarak’s own tenure – has inspired an unprecedented response on the ground.

With record attendance at rallies across the state, the floodgates of change have opened, with Prime Minister Najib Razak calling on all of his cabinet to campaign in what has become a defining national litmus test.

The 10th Sarawak election is perhaps the first real test since March 2008 of whether Malaysia will experience a similar spring, or whether it will stave off change.

Growing loss of faith in S’wak leadership

There are important similarities between Sarawak and the Middle East beyond the length of the tenure of the leadership. Foremost is deepening discontent with the state leadership, as more and more Sarawakians are losing faith in it.

With Taib Mahmud’s decision to contest and not clearly offer a succession plan, attention has remained riveted on his personal and family’s wealth. Attempts to block the Sarawak Report are too late.

While many personally remain loyal to Taib, especially among the Malay/Melanau community and to a lesser extent among some of the Iban communities, the issues of corruption and nepotism have become center stage in a manner that makes the 2006 polls pale in comparison.

These issues are being discussed in longhouses and coffee shops in an open manner, with references to concrete examples that has allowed the issue to permeate across communities. Some voters feel betrayed and lied to as there is a loss of credibility for BN state leaders.

What distinguishes this ‘kopitiam’ talk from previous polls is the scope of discussion and a widening belief that the excesses were exactly that, excesses.

Unfavourable economic conditions

The timing of the elections is not working in the BN’s favour, and contributing to the sense of excesses. Inflation remains high in Sarawak (higher than Peninsular Malaysia), and the effects of growth under Najib’s tenure, for example the New Economic Model (NEM) programme, have not been felt to the same degree.

Development in Sarawak has stagnated in the last few years, as growth has slowed and incomes have not risen. The state’s economic benefits have been seen to be concentrated in hands of Taib’s political elite. Sarawak’s economy – with the exception of tourism and port development associated with natural gas – lacks dynamism.

Even the higher commodity prices for items such as palm oil have not trickled down in the same manner as Peninsular Malaysia, as these are dominated by corporations operating plantations (many in the hands of the political elite and Peninsular Malaysians) rather than smaller farmers.

Retail sectors have been pinched by less spending, due to the persistence of low wages, which remain shockingly low in services and agriculture especially, with workers making less than RM500 a month in arguably a consumer market that is at least 30 percent more expensive than Peninsular Malaysia.

Food security has also emerged as an issue, with the change in agricultural production and inflation, reducing the quality of food, especially in the rural areas.

Hardcore poverty levels may have dropped from 1980, but current relative poverty levels remain high, with the state recording second highest in the country. The gap between the rich and poor in Sarawak is increasing and arguably wider – if one believes even just some of the reports on the state’s political elites wealth – than Peninsular Malaysia.

Economic hardship and disparity are much more prominent this election and these too are being openly discussed.

Loss of fear

This open discussion has started to transform another key element that has been an integral part of the fabric of Sarawak politics – fear.

While there is considerable concern that the voting process is not secret (which is understandable in less populated communities), there is also more willingness to come out and gather, and, as it happened on the streets in Cairo, this dynamic is gathering momentum.

Many voters, reticent of showing their loyalties to the opposition, are braving possible repercussions and attending meetings. They are giving financial support in some towns that rivals donations in the 2008 March elections.

While the BN is pointing to instability – reminiscent of the 2001 polls after September 11 – this is not having the same traction, as voters in Sarawak like those in Egypt are openly defiant.

More dynamic Internet campaign

Part of the reason has to do with new sources of information, namely the access to alternative sources of information. Blogs, websites like Malaysiakini, YouTube and more have become an integral part of the campaign. This did not happen before, even in March 2008.

The cyber campaign has been as hot as the rallies, perhaps even hotter. It is important to appreciate that Internet penetration in Sarawak is much more limited than in Peninsular Malaysia, concentrated in the major towns. Information however is filtering to the semi-rural and rural areas, but slowly and without a major impact to date.

Ironically, this was the situation in the Middle East as well, as the information sharing was concentrated in the urban areas. The middle class and professionals were especially important conduits and discussion leaders, and this dynamic seems to be at play in Sarawak as well.

Critical role of diaspora

The final similarity at play involves the important role of the Sarawak disapora. There are an estimated 300,000 Sarawakians outside of the state. Most left due to the lack of opportunities for employment and are concentrated in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

They have been following this election from afar, giving support and their return to vote will be a crucial factor in shaping the outcomes in the close contests. How many come home will be decisive in the final outcome.

The same issue will play out within the state, as younger voters in Kuching, Miri and Bintulu will shape campaigns in the rural communities.

Extremely tight contests

While these items point to a turning tide toward change, there are important challenges that make this contest the most competitive contest in Sarawak’s history. The opposition gains in 2006 were won on very, very slim margins, and the overall small numbers of voters in constituencies makes for close races.

None of the opposition seats are “secure”, given the tightness of the contests and now more than ever races are open contests. Almost half of the 71 seats are in play, with the number of undecided voters extremely high, especially in the Iban areas and in semi-rural seats. The results in all of the seats will be down to the wire, including every opposition incumbent.

BN’s money and machinery

The BN will continue to rely of its traditional advantage of resources. The machinery of the BN – including the use of government departments – is well-oiled and the BN has the access to the rural areas, allowing it a secure buffer of “sure” wins.

The money has flowed already, with houses receiving RM1,000, individuals RM200 and influential individuals as much as RM5,000. Gone are the days when all that was paid was RM20. What will be interesting to see is if money continues to rule the day, which has been the case in previous elections, and how much more is on the way.

The early disbursement has made for an expensive election. The increasing use of financial incentives for support highlights a challenge that the BN faces in strengthening and in some cases reestablishing its legitimacy. The development card in Sarawak does not quite have the same impact.

At this rate, it will be hard for the BN to afford a national GE.

Personal ties and party infighting

The continued use of patronage distinguishes Malaysia’s possible “spring” from the change in the Middle East. In Sarawak, with its smaller population, especially in the rural areas, the ties are personal. There are many in the rural communities who feel a strong sense of loyalty to their CM Taib, and see their roads and livelihoods tied to his governance.

Unlike the decay of the grassroots connections of Umno in the rural areas of Peninsular Malaysia, the personal relationships are stronger in Sarawak, and continue to engender loyalty.

Crossing the bridge to the unknown – especially given uncertainties in opposition leadership among some – is not quite the step many are willing to take. This gives the BN its base, even though it has frayed.

One of the reasons the SUPP is facing its challenge for survival is that it lost the personal touch in the urban areas. It is not surprisingly that their campaign logo tries to use this appeal, although with limited impact to date.

Another element of the personal dimension to Sarawak’s campaign is the personal relationships of candidates to communities. Candidates are known, from independents to BN ministers. They rely on extended family support and personal friendships. In small communities, these issues matter.

The more the infighting in a particular contest, with independents having their own bases and gripes for contesting, the more the uncertainty in very tight races. Infighting is particularly affecting PKR, Snap and PBB, with the record number of third-corner fights and independents contesting. Overall, this helps the BN to a greater degree than the opposition.

Nastier ethnic politics

What distinguishes this campaign from earlier ones beyond the greater mobilisation of voters is a harder ethnic edge to the campaign. Traditionally, ethnic dynamics in Sarawak have been played out at the elite level, with leadership infighting rarely extending into society. While Iban nationalism has been important, it has had little impact electorally.

Now the terrain has shifted. First, the race card is being used in the Malay/Melanau areas, arguing that their support is crucial for the position of these communities in Sarawak’s leadership.

With photos of PKR’s Baru Bian circulating and not-so-subtle messages being sent in the campaign, the issue of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ is having an impact.

The quiet argument touted that the Chinese are disloyal for supporting the opposition is also angering some voters, who see Peninsular Malaysia’s ethnic politics being brought into Sarawak inappropriately. This is happening at the same time as Christians – Iban, Chinese, Dayak and some Melanau – remain deeply angry over the handling of the Bible and ‘Allah’ issues.

Religion has been more intertwined with ethnicity and in this Christian-majority state, the questions of freedom of religion are making political ripples, as they did in March 2008 in Peninsular Malaysia.

Further complicating this ethnic dynamic is the issue of land, which has been tied to the perceived marginalisation of Iban and Dayak communities, at the expense of other communities and outsiders.

The lack of headway over customary land issues is having an impact in specific communities and this issue alone has salience in over 15 seats – from Ba’Kelalan to Belaga.

Keeping the contest as fair as possible

What is interesting to observe in this contest is whether the election continues to be played respectfully and fairly. Sarawakians traditionally avoid confrontation and political polarisation. While money has been accepted as a norm, other concerns with electoral process are emerging.

Voters want, and deserve, a fair contest. They want their votes to count. Unconfirmed reports of movement of voters between constituencies, problems with the electoral rolls, challenges over postal votes, IC cards being allegedly handed over for payment for someone to vote for an individual, cancellation of police permits, pressure on shop owners for allowing political discussion and more are raising concerns about the integrity of the polls.

Whatever happens when the final results come, it is essential that the process be credible. Many Sarawakians hope that the BN’s call for good conduct in the campaign will extend to the voting process as well.

The role of neutrality and professionalism among civil servants in Malaysia in the Sarawak election, is as important as the actions of the governments in the Middle East.

Najib’s leadership test

In these final days of the campaign, PM Najib has made a bold move to vest himself in the outcome of the polls. His presence on the ground is more than any other PM as this will be a do-or-die mandate for him.

Crucial will be whether he deflects the angst toward the state government and channels votes toward the BN.

The pattern historically has been one of Taib buttressing BN leaders. That role is reversed in this contest. A parallel can be made to Tunisia and Egypt when other leaders came in to stave off the opposition directed toward the top.

Targets and possibilities

The challenges on both sides are immense as the contest has taken on even greater importance as the campaign has evolved. For the BN, Taib and the SUPP are facing a defining referendum that will affect their future, and they have to hold onto the two-thirds majority and at least three seats, respectively.

For the opposition, any victory that surpasses the 15 seats of 1987 is a major accomplishment. Breaking the two-thirds is not out of the question for the opposition, although it is an extremely tough fight for all concerned, and the advantage remains squarely in the BN court despite the ceramah crowds.

Every vote will count. A spring has yet to come to Sarawak, but, given the changes on the ground, it remains in the realm of the possible.