The Sarawak polls are over and the attention is now on assessing its implications at both the state and national levels. Much attention has focused on predictions for the next general elections, with the range of possible dates moving from a few months to further postponement until 2013.

My own view remains that there needs to be some time before the national election machinery is in place again, given the challenges that have emerged from the Sarawak campaign and that anything held this year would be too risky for the BN.

The political terrain is now more uncertain. In this vein, this article examines the immediate political implications, the “sweet” and “sour” challenges that the BN has to face in the wake of the state polls. Tomorrow’s piece will examine the implications for Pakatan Rakyat.

The Sarawak results indicate that the BN has suffered a serious bruising and will have to make hard decisions to improve its performance in the next general election.

Taib the victor (and loser)

Arguably, Chief Minister Taib Mahmud emerged as the single strongest beneficiary from the results. The retention of the two-thirds majority without a single loss in his party, the PBB, have bought him time to choose his own successor. The two-thirds majority also allows him to control debate in the state assembly and eventually depart on his own terms.

At the same time, it has been made clear that Taib will face increasing pressure to step down, and will unlikely to able to lead BN into another election. As the main issue in the campaign, he has been severely discredited personally, and will face an extremely challenging task of rebuilding his reputation and salvaging his legacy.

The allegations in the Sarawak Report website have transformed attitudes of Malaysia’s longest serving chief minister in a manner in which there is no going back. Taib has survived, but he faces a more contentious political environment than ever before.

He also faces a difficult decision – on who to appoint as his successor as there are a number of contenders in the ring, with Abang Johari Abang Openg leading the way. Taib will have to manage the growing internal party competition to take over the reins and to limit infighting in his own party, some of whom are concerned with the transition of power.

Issues such as the role of Taib’s family interests, the dynamic between Malays and Melanaus and perceived need for strong leadership within the BN camp are now being openly discussed.

Taib, perhaps arguably one of Malaysia’s most experienced politicians, will be navigating these issues without the benefit of time and will come under even greater scrutiny.

An uncomfortable federal-state tension

The Sarawak election results also place Prime Minister Najib Razak in a difficult position. It is clear that during the polls campaign, there was tension within the BN over how long Taib should stay on.

With the results matching the number of seats lost in 1987 and showing swings across ethnicities both back and away from BN, Najib faces a difficult choice on how much pressure to put on Taib to turn over power.

Keeping Taib in power too long will be a guarantee that the fixed deposit, already no longer secure, could be lost altogether, and Najib’s own tenure might be at risk. This is not an easy decision for the PM.

Federal-state relations with Sabah and Sarawak are never easy, and arguably the open rift and conflicting interests make for difficult times ahead. The interesting dimension of this is that the rift was public rather than private, and is likely to be even more public given the growing national prominence of Sarawak.

Managing Sarawak’s ‘hot’ issues nationally

If navigating the transition of power in Sarawak was not enough, Najib faces two serious policy headaches.

The first is to address the increasing prominence of corruption. After Taib’s tenure, this was perhaps the anchor of the opposition campaign, and it has now reemerged centre stage in the opposition campaign, forging a common agenda among opposition parties.

Najib has a choice to make on whether he will actively address corruption substantively or allow this issue to build further political momentum. Many calls are already been made for him to act on the issues raised by Sarawak Report.

Moreover, the recent tragic death of Customs officer Ahmad Sarbani Mohamed while in Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s custody, which occurred during the Sarawak campaign has only served to bring additional spotlights on the need for more effective tools to improve anti-corruption governance.

If addressing corruption was not difficult enough, Najib is facing an even more challenging politics of religion in Malaysia as he continues to find a balance between the freedom and equality of all religions and the calls for the primacy of Islam over the rights of other communities.

With the issues of the Bible and the use of Malay terms such as ‘Allah’ in religious texts still unresolved and numerous legal cases outstanding, finding the right balance between communities is hard as groups on all sides are not satisfied with how the matters have been handled.

More pressure to assure electoral integrity

Even more important for the election process is the Election Commission, which reports to the prime minister. By any standard, its performance was below par and did not match the professionalism that the EC is capable of.

The Sarawak electoral process was tainted – from the black-out in Senadin (right) during vote-counting to the last-minute influx of postal voters and the failure to share legal documentation (Borang 14) with all sides. These reports do not reflect well on the integrity of the electoral process.

The EC is now on the defensive, and will need to work to assure voters that it can operate with greater professionalism. Now with the examples of electoral problems fresh in the media, this issue will serve to mobilise civil society as it did in 2007.

What has permeated even further is the sense that the BN is relying more on vote-buying than on its record for political support. This perception has deepened post-Sarawak 2011 polls given the reports of vote-buying coming even from the BN in the case of Pelagus. This practice does not reflect well on Najib himself.

A mandate that is bought, not earned, is less worthy. Arguably the use of money has increased to nationally unsustainable levels. What is missing here is the appreciation that patronage networks – grassroots connections of parties – are not working as they used to and this makes campaigning for the BN even more challenging. This issue is more serious in Peninsular Malaysia than in Sabah and Sarawak.

There is also the dynamic that given the competitiveness of the election, money is not going down to the ground as some fear that a loss of power is coming and they should protect themselves. Greed within the system is costing the system further. There is increasingly no guarantee when one relies on vote-buying for support.

Erosion of Chinese support

The loss of all its ‘safe’ seats was driven home to Sarawak’s grand old party, the SUPP. It was the hardest hit party within the BN in this election.

It is now riddled with further internal infighting over leadership and these squabbles over the spoils are preventing the serious issues of regeneration and reevaluation it needs for its own survival politically. Interests are blinding the actors to the broader political picture.

The party has to find a new direction and its leadership continues to remain resistant to change. What was sad to watch was SUPP’s dependence on Peninsular Malaysian leaders for strategy and guidance, as this party has lost its connection to the issues in Sarawak.

From the concern over children having to leave the state to find work to the fact that the business climate is increasingly unfavourable, SUPP has yet to channel the real concerns of its traditional base.

The further erosion of Chinese support from the BN has raised serious questions for the ruling coalition as a whole. Is this the fate which MCA is staring at? Will the 2006 losses that translated into further losses in 2011 be repeated in Peninsular Malaysia?

Signs are not promising for the BN Chinese component parties, as they are faced a two-prong attack – from their traditional supporters who are leaving them and from Umno comments that further alienate Chinese support.

The fact is that the old style of fear tactics – scaring the Chinese with threats of withdrawing financial contracts – is not working to the same degree. In part, this is because the Chinese are increasingly economically independent.

It is also that the BN has yet to provide concrete reasons for the Chinese to move back, as the Economic Transformation Programme and NEP (New Economic Policy) issues have not been adequately addressed for many non-Malays, Chinese and non-Malay bumiputeras alike.

While there are concerns among some for Chinese representation in the system, the incentives to return to the BN fold are lacking. Many Chinese Malaysians continue to find the opposition message of inclusion and fairer governance more attractive.

BN needs to regain momentum

In the wake of Sarawak polls, the BN momentum at the end of the 16 by-elections has slowed, and arguably has grinded to a halt. Unlike the by-election contests, especially from Hulu Selangor onwards, BN did not set the tone and direction of the Sarawak electoral campaign.

The BN has now moved from the offensive to the defensive. There is now more political uncertainty, and the reality is that when this happened, there is economic uncertainty as well. The task for regaining the momentum for BN is challenging indeed, especially given the increased tensions within the ruling coalition itself and the salience of national policy issues involving Sarawak.

In short, the bruises have left their mark on the BN and it will need time to heal before it steps back into the electoral ring.