Najib set to clean up in Sarawak poll

The main entrance to the Niah Caves in Sarawak. The sprawling state is largely rural. Source: Wikimedia

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is working hard to secure victory in Sarawak, the country’s largest state on Borneo, in an election today (Saturday), seeking to put a year of political turmoil behind him.

Politicians and analysts say the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition will comfortably win the state election, but Najib needs a resounding victory to show he still has the public’s confidence after the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal hit.

Najib has told offered financial pledges and taken his entourage to remote villages as he canvasses hard to bolster support. Malaysia’s Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, an independent watchdog, this week accused Najib and his deputy of buying votes and breaching election law in Sarawak. “It is unfettered political financing where state and federal funds are audaciously used to finance candidates’ winning,” said the group, known as Bersih.

“This is a good example of our continued high commitment to Sarawak,” Najib told the press in Kuching, after promising 3.5 billion ringgit (US$870 million) in projects and investment for the state.Sarawak has rallied behind Najib’s ally, Chief Minister Adenan Satem, who has established greater autonomy for the resource-rich state and dealt with ongoing issues like recognition of native land rights since taking the position in 2014.

Najib is likely to claim some credit for Adenan’s achievements while the opposition has accused the ubiquitous Najib of “hijacking” the Sarawak election, which is normally largely fought on state issues.

Several opposition leaders are barred from entering Sarawak, which maintains autonomy over immigration. Nurul Izzah, daughter of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and a member of his People’s Justice Party (PKR), said she was denied entry.

“They are forced to face the likes of the prime minister and the deputy prime minister dispensing cash like there’s no tomorrow whilst their only ‘semenanjung’ [peninsula] counter force is held up by the immigration,” said Nurul.

“It is to our disadvantage. Their huge machinery is very strong,” said Alan Ling, a state legislator in the opposition Democratic Action Party in Miri.

Arnold Puyok, a political scientist at University of Malaysia Sarawak, said: “It is an important election for Najib…a moral booster for BN and Najib if Adenan wins big, even though the election cannot be used as barometer for BN’s popularity nationwide.”

Najib is still facing allegations of corruption over the misappropriated funds at his pet project 1MDB.

About US$681 million was deposited in Najib’s bank account before a 2013 election with members of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) asking if Najib is the right leader ahead of the 2018 general election.

The South China Sea divides Sarawak from peninsula Malaysian, limiting the effect of political machinations in Putrajaya on its largely rural 2.6 million inhabitants, who suffer from poor amenities and shoddy roads through the mountains and rainforests.

Rural voters, who will decide more than two-thirds of the 82 seats being contested, remain largely oblivious to the political scandals in Peninsular Malaysia.