A regular election is a critical element in a democratic polity like Malaysia. In this country, election is conducted every five years, but under the Westminster System that we have adopted, it could be held at any time within that period.
This year the people in Sarawak will go to the polls to elect a new state government as this year is the fifth year of the mandate of the current government. The present government was elected on 20 May 2006. Ideally, the Sarawak State Assembly should be dissolved on 20 May 2011. But the date of the last election is not the only defining factor that determines the date for the next election. Other factors such as the date the State Assembly had its first sitting after it was elected and the sixty-day grace period after its dissolution too are important factors that need to be taken into account when predicting the date for the forthcoming state election.
Considering all these factors, the forthcoming State election may not be quite as soon as we may understand it to be, as constitutionally the state government has until September 2011 to call for an election.
The political system that we adopted is based on the principle of a responsible government. Any responsible government will not go beyond five years from the date it was last elected. A responsible and a democratic Sarawak state government therefore should not go beyond 20th May 2011.
The forthcoming Sarawak State Election this year is mandatory, while the current parliament still has about two years to go. But many political analysts and politicians alike believed that the Prime Minister is going to call for a snap election to coincide with the forthcoming Sarawak State Election.
The Chief Minister of Sarawak, Pehin Sri Taib Mahmud, has said that he will discuss this issue with the Prime Minister. Will we have a simultaneous election or will the state government maintain the status quo and have a separate state election?
What is simultaneous election? In Peninsular Malaysia, national election and state election have always been held at the same time. But why is this not really regarded as simultaneous election.
Simultaneously election in Malaysia therefore maybe defined as when the national election is held at the same time as the Sarawak state election or vice versa. In other words, simultaneous election is when the people of Sarawak go to the polls to elect their national parliamentarians on the same day as they elect their State Assemblymen. The last time this was held in Sarawak was in 1974. In 1970, the people of Sarawak also elected their national parliamentarians and State Assemblymen at the same election.
Is there any advantage to the BN or disadvantage to the Opposition if parliamentary and state elections are held simultaneously in Sarawak?
Sarawak was supposed to go to the polls in 1968, but the election was postponed because of the imposition of the state of emergency in the State. This was supposed to be its first direct election since gaining independence in 1963. In 1969, voting in Sarawak was suspended in the aftermath of the May 13 incident in Kuala Lumpur.
In 1974, the Sarawak State Assembly was again dissolved at the same time as the national parliament, but Sarawak, as in 1969 had different dates for polling. In 1969, polling in Sarawak was to take place few days after the people in the Peninsular had voted.
In 1974, polling in Sarawak was staggered over a period of two weeks. While polling was conducted in one day in the Peninsular, in Sarawak this was conducted over a period of two weeks. This meant that the election in Sarawak at that time did not exactly take place at the same time as the one held in Peninsular Malaysia.
The 1974 election was held after the National Alliance changed its name to the Barisan Nasional. The election in Sarawak was won by the BN which comprised PBB and SUPP. PBB is a merger of Parti Bumiputera and Pesaka. The two parties merged in 1973. In the same year the SCA (Sarawak Chinese Association) was disbanded and most of its members joined SUPP. The 1974 election had helped the BN to consolidate its power and created a political hegemony in the state. But the main opposition party, SNAP became the largest single party in the State. In 1976, SNAP joined the BN. In 1978, Sarawak had a separate state election which it maintains till today.
Why is simultaneous election back in the agenda again? Is it really important to have it?
BN politicians in Sarawak think simultaneous election is good for the BN because of one main reason. If the national election and the forthcoming Sarawak State Election are held concurrently, the opposition stalwarts from the Peninsular will be not able to come to Sarawak to campaign for their friends in the state as they will be tied up with their own campaigns. They will not be able to bring their brands of politics to the state which BN people in the State think are alien to the state. The so-called Opposition aggressive campaign tactic is not good for the state.
The current state government has many flaws and defects which it needs to rectify, and the internet has helped to highlight some of those flaws. The opposition will highlight these flaws and defects during the election. The opposition as in the 1970 and 1974 elections is quite strong, especially in the urban and semi-urban constituencies.
In 1970, the Sarawak Alliance government under the leadership of Tawi Sli faced stiffed competition from SNAP and SUPP. In 1974, the BN and Rahman Yakup were severely challenged by SNAP under its slogan ‘Sarawak for Sarawakian’.
Concurrent elections benefited Sarawak Alliance in 1970 and its predecessor, the BN, in 1974. The staggered voting in 1974 and the delayed voting in 1969 (which was suspended until 1970) had advantaged the government.
There are some similarities between 1969/1970 and 1974 and 2011. The opposition in the state is certainly stronger now and they also have better and credible candidates now than they used to have.
The opposition may think that the state BN is getting more vulnerable. History has shown that simultaneously election was held when the opposition was strong, and separate election was held when the opposition was weak. Is the need for a concurrent election an indication that the State BN is not totally certain about itself in this forthcoming state election?
But there is no pressure for the PM to dissolve the National Parliament. He has a sizeable majority. The economy is good and the people are getting to have more trust and confidence in him. He needs to see this to solidify. His transformation program is yet to bring results and if election is held now his idea could be used against him as something that is not practical, feasible and so on. And he has two solid years to go to contemplate when to make the right move and makes a kill. In other words, the Prime Minister has no reasons to call for an election this year.
Separate election for federal and state is good for democracy. In a more mature democracy as in Canada and Australia, federal and state elections are never held concurrently. Similarly in the US, there is a mechanism to ensure that only a third of the state governor is elected during the presidential election. Separate election acts as checks and balances for a thriving democracy.
Money should not be the reason for the need to hold the federal and state elections concurrently. Election is an essential element of democracy, and money should not be an excuse for not implementing the democratic ideal.
Concurrent election could be dangerous to the BN as there is no time to address any problems or defects that came about during the election. The people may think it is good for democracy if different parties are holding power at the federal level and at the state level. The people may think it is right to vote for the BN at the federal level and for the Opposition at the state level or vice-versa.
*The writer is a Senior Lecture with the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.