Three things we learned from: The 2021 Sarawak election

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Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) again secured a two-third victory in the 12th state election. — Bernama pic
Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) again secured a two-third victory in the 12th state election. — Bernama pic

KUCHING, Dec 19 — Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) again secured a two-third victory in the 12th state election that concluded yesterday.

GPS, comprising Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), Parti Demokratik Progresif (PDP), and the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), won 76 out of 82 state seats today, including one that remains provisional.

These are three things we learnt from the election:

1. GPS is better in Sarawak without Barisan Nasional (or Perikatan Nasional)

Every GPS party leader won yesterday. Coalition chairman and PBB president Tan Sri Abang Johari Openg won in Gedong, PDP president Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing won in Dudong, and SUPP president Dr Sim Kui Hian won in Batu Kawah.

PRS — whose president, Datuk Seri James Masing, died earlier this year — won all 11 seats it contested in Balai Ringin, Bukit Begunan, Batang Ai, Ngemah, Tamin, Kakus, Pelagus, Baleh, Belaga, Murum dan Samalaju.

When the campaign started, there was doubt GPS would be able to emulate — much less better — its 2016 performance under the popular late Tan Sri Adenan Satem and with PBB, SUPP and PRS facing internal problems.

This time around, with minimal campaigning and support from even the federal ministers, GPS and its components showed that they were more than a match for the Opposition.

The big win showed that GPS could become more powerful in the next general election if it could expand its share of 18 seats from the state’s 31 parliamentary seats, which would put it in a decision to be a kingmaker to whichever ally it favours.

2. The decline of DAP and PKR, slow start to PSB

DAP won seven seats in 2016 but was reduced to only two yesterday. State chairman Chong Chieng Jen won in Padungan and now four-time representative Violet Yong just managed to defend Pending.

However, its dominance in Bandar Kuching and Sibu has been reduced by GPS component, SUPP, and the split votes for local Opposition, Parti Sarawak Baru (PSB), showed that urban voters in the state have begun to turn their backs on the party, preferring local candidates.

PKR, meanwhile, was completely wiped out in all 28 seats contested, with at least half of its candidates losing their deposits. The party has been in disarray after all of its Sarawak assemblymen hopped over to PSB and Perikatan Nasional, leaving it with neither leadership nor grassroots in the state.

There was also a lack of coherent narrative and campaign messaging from the Pakatan Harapan team, with little to no communication and coordination throughout the whole period before voting, despite several national leaders on the ground to help drum up support.

The new local opposition party and SUPP splinter, Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) defended Engkili, Ba’kelalan, Batu Lintang and Bawang Assan. Although it started the campaign period strong by announcing a Dayak CM-candidate and contesting in 70 seats, it could not go toe-to-toe with GPS, even in supposed Dayak strongholds. Only Baru Bian, the three-time state assemblyman formerly of PKR, and Jonichal Rayong Ngipa, four-time assemblyman formerly of SNAP and BN, won in Dayak majority areas.

3. Opposition parties losing the online edge

Since the 2008 general election, online campaigns through social media have been said to favour Opposition parties, to the point of helping them win the 2018 general election.

However, within the Covid-19 pandemic era, both Melaka and Sarawak have shown that even a familiarity with running social media campaigns was not enough to overcome the handicap of not being allowed to canvass votes in person.

At the same time, the Opposition’s rivals were also not sitting on their laurels, and have embraced technology in their campaigning.

Although the low voter turnout of below 60 per cent was a contributing factor, GPS leaders in the 18 urban constituencies had been visibly active in online interactions, doing daily talk shows, Facebook Live sessions, and using targeted advertisements to reach their voters.

Their activities then became the talk of voters, as volunteers distributed campaign videos to voters using phone data banks as well as social media accounts, something that was not very widely done by the Opposition.

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