The Sarawak state election, which took place on 7 May, saw the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) alliance win a landslide victory, securing 72 out of the available 82 seats. The victory comes amid calls for coalition leader, Najib Razak, to step down from the position of prime minister after corruption allegations were laid against him. Following the elections, Najib told a news conference ‘This victory … showed that the basic strength of the Barisan Nasional remained strong in Sarawak state’. As noted by the Wall Street Journal, however, the BN spent heavily on infrastructure and charity projects throughout the region in the lead-up to the elections.
For over a year now, Najib has been buffeted by corruption allegations, most notably in regard to large sums of money that were transferred into his personal account from the development fund chaired by him, known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has also joined forces with some of his former political foes to push for the removal of Najib. The result of this alliance was a “Citizens Declaration” containing 58 high-profile signatories calling for Najib to step down. The declaration also received public support, with 53,000 people supporting the declaration in an online petition to oust Najib. Given the mounting vocal opposition to the Prime Minister, some believed that the Sarawak election could potentially become another blow to the Barisan coalition. The Wall Street Journal stated that the election would be the ‘toughest fight of [Najib’s] political career’, and The Economist declared it ‘a chance for voters to rebuke Najib Razak’.
It could come as a surprise, therefore, that the BN gained seventeen seats with a positive swing of 6.6% in the election. This, however, is not an indicator of increasing support throughout the rest of Malaysia. First, it is unlikely that the 1MDB scandal had any influence over the election in Sarawak. As noted by The Economist, with a largely rural population, many Sarawak residents are more concerned with local issues, such as poor road infrastructure and power networks, than national issues involving 1MDB. In contrast, those living within large urban areas, such as Kuala Lumpur, are more likely to be concerned with national issues. Additionally, voting patterns in Sarawak are inconsistent with other Malaysian states. The Director of the University of Tasmania Asia Institute, James Chin, elaborated on that when he spoke to the Malaysiakini news website, ‘having observed elections in Sabah and Sarawak for many years, there is no similar voting patterns. So, what happens in Sabah and Sarawak will probably not happen in peninsular Malaysia.’
Barisan Nasional relies heavily on rural support for its power. Looking back to the 2013 general election, the ruling BN coalition secured only 47 per cent of the vote while winning 51 per cent of parliamentary seats, with the opposition Pakatan Rakyat receiving 50 per cent of votes while taking only 48 per cent of the seats. The majority of the seats won by Barisan Nasional were in more sparsely populated rural areas, particularly within the states of Sarawak and Sabah. With such strong rural support, the BN was able to secure more seats and win the election. The fact that support for the BN has increased within East Malaysian electorates in no way reflects increasing support for it on the peninsula, especially within urban centres such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang (Palau Pinang). It does, however, indicate that Najib’s grasp on power remains firm.