When voters head to the polls this Sunday in Malaysia, the hotly contested race could very well be decided in Sabah and Sarawak, potential swing states on the island of Borneo.
While Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has traditionally carried the areas, there are indications that the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) could this time make significant electoral gains.
Of parliament’s 222 seats, 25 are allocated to Sabah and 31 to Sarawak, together representing about one-quarter of the federal legislature. PR won five of 13 federal states at the 2008 general election, denying BN and its main component United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) party its coveted two-thirds majority in parliament. PR is nominally led by former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, who is campaigning on a clean governance platform after close to six decades of consecutive UMNO-led rule.
Opposition parties won only two seats – one each in Sabah and Sarawak – out of the 56 up for grabs in the two states at the 2008 polls. The other 54 were won by BN, providing an electoral cushion in its overall 140-82 parliamentary seat win. This time, opposition parties predict they will make significant inroads in Sabah and Sarawak, long regarded as “fixed deposits” of BN support, along with the peninsular states of Johor and Pahang.
Sarawak and Sabah are both rich in offshore oil, but the wealth from those deposits has not reached the grass roots population, especially for those situated in the two states’ underdeveloped interior. Sabah has the highest poverty rate in the country, while many Sarawak residents are restless after losing huge tracts of ancestral land to big BN-backed infrastructure projects and politically associated logging and plantation companies.