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Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud retains power in scandalous Malaysian polls

Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud retains power in scandalous Malaysian polls

The Sarawak election was markled by strong army presence. Picture: Barisan Nasional election rallye at Bario, 14 April 2011 (Picture: BMF)

Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia). 377,000 votes from a population of 2.4 million have been sufficient to enable Abdul Taib Mahmud ("Taib"), the controversial Chief Minister of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, to be returned to office for his seventh term in power. Despite heavy criticism over graft and abuse of power, the Taib-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has won the Sarawak state polls, which were held last Saturday, with a majority of 54.5% of the votes. The opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) scored 39.9% and another 5.6% went to independent candidates. The uneven distribution of seats will allow BN to hold 55 out of the Sarawak state assembly's 71 seats while 15 will be held by the opposition and one by an independent.

Taib's seventh term in power is the result of a vote system and undemocratic practices carefully designed to remain the ruling elite in power in what has been described as Malaysia's "pre-determined winner democracy". Scandalously, several hundred thousand natives of Sarawak are deliberately excluded from voting by the Malaysian Election Commission who is refusing to set up an efficient voter registration system and is actively undermining the registration of voters by third parties. According to official figures, there are close to 480,000 unregistered voters in Sarawak, a third of total eligible citizens, most of them from rural communities that are suffering under the Taib government's land grab and logging policies. Thousands more Sarawak natives cannot vote because the Malaysian government is denying them identity papers, a basic human right.

"This has not been a fair election at all", said native rights champion Baru Bian, one of only two candidates who succeeded in winning a rural seat for the oppositional Justice Party (PKR). "It was filled with vote-buying, dirty tricks and undue interference by government officials who intimidated voters, particularly in the rural areas." Reportedly, votes were bought by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition for 300 Malaysian ringgit (100 USD) from individuals while village chiefs had been offered 10,000 ringgits (3,300 USD) each. Ahead of the polls, several independent election observers from West Malaysia were barred from entering Sarawak, a clear abuse of the state's immigration laws by the Taib government.

Despite fighting an up-hill battle, the Sarawak opposition parties have garnered unprecedented voter support, doubling their seats from 7 to 15 and making significant inroad into Barisan Nasional's East Malaysian heartland. All major cities, with their strong chinese communities, saw a spectacular voter swing towards the opposition, with the Democratic Action Party (DAP) being the main beneficiary. One of Taib's closest allies, Deputy Chief Minister George Chan, was swept away by a young DAP lawyer.

As a result, Taib's latest victory may turn out to be bittersweet and is likely to mark the beginning of his end in power. It leaves the controversial politician weakened and under increasing pressure from the public and from Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has reasons to be worried about Taib, as a further progress of the opposition in Sarawak in the upcoming general election might seriously damage the Barisan Nasional coalition's hold over Malaysia.

(19 April 2011)

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