There are five things to be learned from today’s Sarawak election.
The Najib factor
Even Pakatan Rakyat (PR) campaigners concede this fact grudgingly: till Datuk Seri Najib Razak camped in Sarawak, the Barisan Nasional (BN) machinery was rudderless and dispirited.
He cajoled, persuaded, pressed flesh and turned on the pipe of incentives and gifts when it appeared that the BN team was going to collapse under the incessant attacks on Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud.
PR basically got a taste of what it means to come up against a prime minister who will do pretty much anything to win an election. It is going to be pretty much the same at the next general election. Umno and BN will ride on the Najib brand.
There is no one else in Umno or BN with the pull of the prime minister. Definitely not Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. Or Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein. Or Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek. Or Datuk G. Palanivel. Even Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad can’t work the ground effectively.
The main question in Kuala Lumpur at the onset of campaign was this: why is Najib spending so much time in Sarawak? The answer: without him, BN is just like a piece of driftwood.
It only takes a spark
Remember the Opposition. Yes, the motley group of individuals who sometimes remember that they are PR. The same people who were imploding over the lottery issue, distracted by the video scandal and constantly painted as failures by the mainstream media.
They are alive and kicking. The lesson here is that given the fluid state of politics in Malaysia post-2008, it only takes one issue to get the Opposition going. In this case, PR had a bogeyman in Taib Mahmud and the Alkitab issue.
PAS, PKR and DAP also came together in the wake of the sordid videotape, widely perceived by the public to have been engineered by Umno or its supporters.
So despite having a leader facing all sorts of problems, PR did well. BN and its agents would do well to understand that many Malaysians are not as skittish about voting Opposition.
At one point in the campaign, it appeared that Najib and gang were more upset with Taib Mahmud than with the Opposition. He seemed more interested in his young wife and refused to accept an early exit from politics.
BN leaders wanted him to go six months after polls but he placed himself on a three-year term. To be sure, the man is damaged goods. But with a two-thirds majority in the bag and Sarawak still under his control, he is likely to resist any move towards an early retirement.
And his resistance is going to complicate Najib’s desire to have polls this year. Some Umno/BN leaders believe that Najib should use the heavy stick approach to force Taib out of office. This includes looking into allegations of excessive wealth. The problem with that approach is that Taib has been around for 30 years and has enough leverage on most people, including Federal leaders.
Chinese still with Opposition
Malaysia is a land divided, these days. BN have got the Malay vote and the Indian vote but the Chinese in East and West Malaysia are firmly with the Opposition.
Is this because they want checks and balances against the arrogance of Umno? Is this because they are tired of Chinese-based BN parties being second-class citizens? Is it because the community is weary of playing second fiddle?
The power of incumbency
Conservative estimates suggest that the BN spent more than RM500 million on these hotly contested elections. Last night, the going rate in Miri was RM1,000 per identity card and apparently RM7,000 in Ba’Kelalan.
In addition to cold cash, the BN election machinery was supported by the impressive government machinery, from Kemas officials watching over longhouses to education officials working the ground.
Even the government-linked companies were out in full force in Sarawak, doling out gifts and opening bank branches, etc.
The point is that when PR go to battle, they are up against Umno, MCA, SUPP, PBB, Maybank, Utusan Malaysia, New Straits Times, PDRM, EC, Pos Malaysia, AirAsia, etc.
This is the power of incumbency which Anwar and others are up against