Polls open in Malaysia's Sarawak for state elections

Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem (right) casting his vote for the Sarawak state election at SK Merpati Jepang in Kuching on Saturday, May 7, 2016.
Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem (right) casting his vote for the Sarawak state election at SK Merpati Jepang in Kuching on Saturday, May 7, 2016.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

KUCHING (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK/AFP) - After 12 days of campaigning, polls opened in Malaysia's state of Sarawak for its 11th state election on Saturday (May 7). Sarawakians cast their votes at polling centres at 8am.

Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem cast his ballot on polling day after arriving at a polling centre near Kuching at 9.10am. He was accompanied by his wife Puan Sri Jamilah Anu, Adenan, who is Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) president and Sarawak Barisan Nasional chairman.

Meanwhile, the polling centre in Taman Desa Wira saw Malaysian Chinese Association president Liow Tiong Lai arrive to lend support to Sarawak United People's Party (SUPP) president Sim Kui Hian, who is contesting for the Batu Kawah state seat.

Datuk Sim later met Ms Christina Chiew, his rival from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), who had reportedly suffered a miscarriage on Friday.

Despite being opponents, Dr Sim and Ms Chiew shook hands in front of the media, and he bid her a speedy recovery.

In Sibu, Barisan Nasional (BN) direct candidates for Bawang Assan and Dudong, Datuk Seri Wong Soon Koh and Datuk Tiong Thai King, cast their votes at 8.50am.

Mr Wong was accompanied by his wife Datin Wong Mee Sing and son Tiong Chiong Hee.

Earlier, BN candidate for Nangka, Dr Annuar Rapaee, cast his vote at the SJK(C) Methodist polling centre, shortly after polls opened.

There are 1,754 polling centres for the 1,085,087 registered voters.

Only 80 of the 82 seats are being contested in the state election, as the remaining two have been won by Barisan Nasional unopposed.

Dr Abdul Rahman Ismail and Datuk Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hassan won the Bukit Kota and Bukit Sari seats respectively when nominations closed on April 25.

Early voting took place on May 3, with a total of 24,604 people casting their ballots.

The early voters comprised army, police and General Operations Force personnel and their spouses, and 106 absentee (overseas) postal voters.

The results for the election are expected to be announced at the Election Commission headquarters in the capital Kuching by 11pm.

The election in Malaysia's largest state poses a test for a ruling coalition deeply shaken by allegations of massive corruption linked to Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Malaysia's ruling BN is expected to comfortably retain its firm control of Sarawak, one of the country's least-developed states.

But the vote - Sarawak holds state-assembly polls out of synch with the rest of Malaysia - is being closely watched for clues that Datuk Seri Najib's graft scandal has eroded BN support with general elections looming by mid-2018.

"In urban areas the opposition has used Najib as a campaign issue. It may cause some problems for BN; Najib may be a liability," said Mr Faisal Hazis, a senior fellow at the National University of Malaysia.

Mr Najib led the BN - in power since independence in 1957 - to its worst-ever showing in 2013 national elections as the opposition capitalised on voter concerns over the economy, corruption and alleged government repression. It now faces allegations that billions of dollars were plundered from a debt-stricken state-owned investment fund Mr Najib founded in 2009.

The allegations, which burst forth last year, include the revelation that Najib received at least US$681 million in deposits to his personal bank accounts in 2013. Mr Najib and the state company, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), steadfastly deny that the money he received was syphoned from 1MDB, but he has sparked anger by shutting down investigations and sidelining critics.

BN-allied parties hold 55 seats in Sarawak's state assembly, to 15 for the opposition and one independent.

Allegations of electoral abuses have marred the polls, including a redistricting exercise that creates 10 new seats. Critics have labelled it gerrymandering that benefits the ruling coalition.

Mr Najib, meanwhile, has lavished spending on Sarawak in recent weeks, drawing accusations of vote-buying. The state government also has blocked a string of opposition politicians and activists from entering Sarawak for campaigning, utilising entry controls it secured when it joined Malaysia in the 1960s.

Known for its vast tropical forests and mighty rivers, Sarawak on the island of Borneo is one of Malaysia's least-developed states.

It has remained so under decades of BN rule despite abundant energy, timber and hydroelectric resources, and its government has been accused of flagrant corruption. Yet it represents a vital support pillar for the ruling coalition even as the opposition has gained ground elsewhere.

BN controls 10 Malaysian states, and the opposition three. In 2011 Sarawak elections, BN parties surrendered eight state seats to the opposition.

But the BN's well-established political machine, record of delivering economic growth, and opposition infighting are expected to maintain or even extend the government's advantage.

A recent independent survey found most Sarawakians support the state government and were little swayed by the Najib graft allegations.