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News analysis

Infighting, voter disconnect derail opposition in Sarawak polls

Malaysia's opposition suffered a crushing blow in its urban strongholds in the Sarawak polls on Saturday, losing over a third of the seats it previously held in the state's mainly Chinese-populated towns.

Three key factors were responsible for the dismal performance - infighting in the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, the lack of clear issues to connect with voters, and Chief Minister Adenan Satem remaining a popular figure.

The Democratic Action Party (DAP) contested 31 seats - twice as many compared with the last polls five years ago - but won just seven in total, down from 12 previously. All its victories were in Sarawak's towns even though the party had expanded its presence to the rural areas.

PH coalition partner Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) saw its three incumbents returned in both urban and rural areas. But the third component of the coalition, Parti Amanah Negara, formed by disaffected members of Parti Islam SeMalaysia, was wiped out, with many of its candidates losing their deposits.

In 2011, the opposition had campaigned on alleged graft, including land grabs and dubious timber deals, by Tan Sri Adenan's predecessor, Tan Sri Taib Mahmud. Mr Taib was also blamed by urban Sarawakians for the loss of state rights and autonomy, especially with regard to revenue for the resource-rich state.

But, since taking power two years ago, Mr Adenan has systematically tackled the sources of discontent.

First, he pledged not to abuse his position to enrich his family.

Then he introduced a slew of policies aimed at showing that Kuching would be independent of Kuala Lumpur, including recognising independent Chinese education certification and gaining some decision-making power from the federal government.

He also dangled the prospect of even more autonomy for the state if voters solidly backed the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN).

The measures worked and the chief minister's popularity rating soared to 81 per cent

Professor Jeniri Amir of the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak told The Straits Times: "Adenan has hijacked the DAP's agenda. All the issues brought up by the DAP now are not sexy and controversial. They ride on 1MDB and GST, which are not interesting any more."

He was referring to the financial scandal involving state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad and the 6 per cent goods and services tax introduced last year.

The failure of the DAP and the PKR to successfully negotiate seat allocations ahead of the polls, resulting in both competing against each other in six constituencies, also raised doubts about their reliability among voters.

BN now controls 72 of the 82 seats in the state legislature, giving it more than the two-thirds majority that PH had planned to prevent.

The ruling coalition also increased its share of the popular vote by about 15 per cent, largely because of the urban swing.

In Sarawak's towns, not only did BN wrest five seats from the DAP, but the losing margins of candidates from the ruling coalition were also cut in all the seats retained by the opposition.

The thumping victory will embolden Prime Minister Najib Razak who was encamped in the underdeveloped state during the campaign and has announced allocations for several new projects.

Mr Najib will, no doubt, now return to Kuala Lumpur, able to tout his leadership.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2016, with the headline 'Infighting, voter disconnect derail opposition in Sarawak polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe