To hold elections or not? Sarawak tries to solve election dilemma as Aug 1 approaches

From left: Abdul Karim, Abang Johari and Chong.

Commentary

By Lian Cheng

WHAT will happen to Sarawak after August 1, 2021? Will Sarawak proceed with the 12th Sarawak Elections which is long overdue or will Sarawak succumb to the overwhelming pressure of Covid-19 cases and delay the election indefinitely?


For Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) vice-president Datuk Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah, he believes following the lifting of the Emergency on Aug 1, the Sarawak Legislative Assembly (DUN) will automatically be dissolved and an election has to be called within 60 days.

There is the possibility for the term of the Sarawak DUN to be extended a second time, if the King were to extend the Emergency beyond Aug 1, which Abdul Karim doubts if His Majesty will do so. To Abdul Karim, there is no two ways about it. The scenario is straightforward that Sarawak elections should be held within 60 days after Aug 1.

On the other side of the political divide, Sarawak Democratic Action Party (DAP) chief Chong Chieng Jen hopes for the imposition of a localised Emergency in Sarawak to allow the elections to be postponed in view of the present high number of Covid-19 infections in the State.

In a press statement yesterday, he argued that the high number of Covid-19 cases in Sarawak coupled with the presence of the Delta variant will put the lives of voters at risk if the Sarawak elections were to be held in the near future.

Apart from Sarawak DAP, leaders of other smaller opposition parties such as Parti Bumi Kenyalang (PBK) and Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) are also advocating for the State elections to be postponed until the number of Covid-19 cases in Sarawak subsides.

For the chairman of Sarawak’s ruling coalition Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg, the Sarawak scenario is a complicated one where the situation is volatile, largely due to the high number of Covid-19 cases in Kuching. The situation is further complicated by fears over the presence of the highly transmissible Delta variant.

The prevalence of Covid-19 is a crucial point for Abang Johari to consider as the opinion of the Health Ministry needs to be sought to determine whether it is safe for Sarawak to hold its elections. Apart from this, Abang Johari also has to consider the ways how the elections may be conducted where infections may be minimised and a Statewide outbreak prevented.

Logistics-wise, Abang Johari is also waiting for the Election Commission (EC) to finalise election standard operating procedures (SOP), one that may allow elections to proceed and avoid the recurrence of the aftermath of the Sabah elections which saw a drastic surge of Covid-19 cases post-election. As chief minister, it is Abang Johari’s duty to put the lives and safety of Sarawakians first which he acknowledged but at the same time, he also voiced out the need for an election to be held, following the expiry of the Sarawak DUN’s term on June 6, 2021.

To hold or not to hold the Sarawak elections? It is understandable that Abang Johari still has no answer at this stage. This is evident from his reply when he was questioned by the media at the launch of the Orang Ulu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (OUCCI) in Kuching today where his answer was: “See what happens in next one to two weeks”.

From the above statements made by Sarawakian politicians, perhaps it is safe to conclude that Sarawak will be looking at two scenarios after August 1. The first is that the Sarawak elections will be held within 60 days after August 1, as advocated by Abdul Karim, who is also the Tourism, Arts, Culture, Youth and Sports Minister. The second scenario is that Sarawak DUN’s term will be extended indefinitely following the intervention of the King and the State Governor to postpone the elections until a time it is deemed safe to be held.

If the second scenario is chosen after August 1, then further questions may be asked such as what kind of figures are we looking at, to consider it ‘safe’ for Sarawak to hold elections?

So far, scientists across the world are still unable to provide an effective solution to halt the spread of the Delta variant and if the number of new infections continues to persist at more than 300 per day in Sarawak for another year or more, does it mean that the existing Sarawak government will continue to operate as it is now, where every now and then, the issue of its legitimacy and mandate is questioned?

As of now, due to the unprecedented development of events, it is even unclear if the present Sarawak government is a caretaker government or an elected government.

Sarawak is not the only territory to be caught in the dilemma of “to hold or not to hold election”. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (Idea), election postponement is a global phenomenon where between Jan 1 to July 21, 2021, at least 78 countries and territories have decided to postpone elections and referendums due to Covid-19, out of which, 41 of them are still maintaining status quo.

Idea’s statistics also show that at least 128 countries and territories have decided to hold elections despite concerns related to Covid-19, out of which at least 107 have managed to do so.

It is common understanding that Covid-19 is here to stay. It will become a fixed part of our lives, whether we like it or not. If the Sarawak elections can only be held after the threat of Covid-19 is over, then it will be a long wait or a condition which will never be fulfilled.

One way or the other, Sarawak will have to hold State polls. To make it possible, the Sarawak government has upheld its role by pushing for the immunisation of all eligible Sarawakians where considerable success has been achieved as evidential by a more than 80 per cent vaccination rate for first dose and over 50 per cent rate for second dose. There is no doubt that Sarawak’s vaccination rate will be high enough to allow the State elections to be held after August 1, the question now is whether the EC can present an effective election SOP that will allow Sarawakians to vote safely.

Predictions on when the Sarawak election will be held has been in the media spotlight since 2018 and Covid-19 has been a critical issue in Malaysia since 2019. There has been plenty of time for the EC to observe, study and produce a fair and effective election SOP to allow elections to be held amid the threat of a pandemic. It would be a shame and utterly unacceptable if by now, the EC is still unable to formulate an election SOP for Sarawakians to cast their votes. — DayakDaily