Malaysia's Sarawak dissolves assembly, sets stage for polls amid scandal

Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem making a peace sign on 31 March 2016 after announcing the dissolution of Sarawak's assembly.
Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem making a peace sign on 31 March 2016 after announcing the dissolution of Sarawak's assembly.PHOTO: THE STAR

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Malaysia's Sarawak state dissolved its assembly on Monday (April 11), the country's official news agency Bernama reported, paving the way for an election that is being closely scrutinised for its impact on a huge financial scandal.

Prime Minister Najib Razak and his nationally ruling coalition have taken a battering over allegations that billions of dollars were plundered from a state-owned investment fund which he founded.

Parties from the Barisan Nasional (National Front) have long had firm control of Sarawak. But political observers are watching for any signs of eroding support before national elections due by mid-2018.

New polls for Sarawak's state assembly must now be held within 60 days. A date is expected to be set this week.

Sarawak, known for its vast tropical forests, is one of Malaysia's most sparsely inhabited states, yet plays an outsized role in politics.

It is often referred to as a reliable "fixed deposit" of support for the ruling coalition even as Malaysia's opposition has gained ground elsewhere.

Although richly endowed with oil, timber and hydropower resources, its people - many from tribal communities - are among Malaysia's poorest.

It is one of 10 Malaysian states controlled by the Barisan Nasional, while three are held by the opposition.

Despite the scandal swirling around the state-owned investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), ruling coalition parties are widely expected to remain in firm overall control of Sarawak.

The opposition and electoral reform advocates say Barisan Nasional parties retain control of the states via "money politics", control of the media, and other means, adding that a recent redrawing of electoral boundaries in Sarawak blatantly favoured the ruling coalition.

Analysts say a strong showing by the coalition could boost its position in the next national polls. Barisan Nasional has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957.

A recent independent survey found that most people in Sarawak supported the current government and were little influenced by the 1MDB scandal.

Datuk Seri Najib, who denies wrongdoing, has weathered the scandal so far by taking steps to scuttle investigations and clamping down on his powerful ruling party.