• Sabah-based, or else…

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    EI SUN OH

    LAST week we explored the plausibility of early state elections in neighboring Sabah. I posited that one of the motivating factors for so doing could be to forestall the political advances of a new Sabah-based opposition party, Warisan, lest it makes too strong an electoral inroad into Sabah’s political landscape.

    But there is perhaps a related and even more nuanced factor at play here. If Sabah were to hold its state elections earlier, then the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government will be in a position to focus the considerable nationwide resources it controls as incumbent on Sabah, instead of having to spread them thin across the whole country as in a general election. This would enable especially the rural voters of Sabah to be ingratiated and thus more willing to vote for BN. And if BN were to thus secure an overwhelming victory in Sabah’s state election, considerable political momentum would also be engendered in the ensuing national election favoring BN.

    Of course, opinions differ as to the feasibility of an earlier state election for Sabah. The main thing is that the current federal and state governments’ terms will expire in about a year’s time. Under Malaysia’s electoral system, it is still theoretically possible to hold the elections separately, but it is rapidly becoming not very meaningful to do so. Popular sentiment (in Sabah) may indeed be gauged through an earlier state election, but there would not be a lot of time for the federal government to undertake drastic policy changes to comply with these sentiments so as to win and renew electoral support in the general election. The effects of these policy changes may not “sink in” as fast and be thus significant enough to sway the voters’ electoral preferences. This is distinct from a separate state election in Sarawak which, as discussed, is usually held at midterm between two federal elections.

    And the point is also that even if the federal and state elections were to be held simultaneously, the aforementioned “distribution” of considerable developmental resources by the incumbent administration will still be quite significant. At the moment, it would appear that Warisan’s political rallies are well attended. But as elections near and “resources” were to be deployed in abundance by the powers that be, Warisan’s winning chances especially in the rural constituencies remain to be seen. As such, it is not yet clear which side of the political divide would benefit froman earlier Sabah state election.

    But the political situation in Sabah will likely remain to be BN vs Warisan, and perhaps the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and People’s Justice Party (PKR). In addition, there are a few other minor parties which did not perform well in the last round of elections, as well as a few political figures who left their previous parties. Together they make up the United Sabah Alliance (USA), which has also vowed to participate in the next round of elections. They claim to mainly be contesting against BN, but if Warisan, DAP and PKR were to join the race too, USA is not likely to yield, thus potentially creating triangular fights in a number of constituencies.

    In actuality, USA, or its previous political reincarnations, has existed in loose form for a number of years already. It’s main political claim to “fame” appears to be that its “component” parties are all Sabah-based ones. This is distinct from both some of the BN component parties such as UMNO, Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Gerakan, and the DAP and PKR from the opposition, all of which originated from West Malaysia. That begs the question, why is the origins of political parties active in Sabah of such importance?

    This is mainly because as a result of the two rounds of elections since 2008, BN’s parliamentary seats in West Malaysia were reduced considerably. Many of the BN’s East Malaysian component parties thus saw the proportion of their parliamentary seats increased within BN, to such an extent that without them BN would not secure a parliamentary majority and thus not be able to form the federal government. This in turn brings forth the local East Malaysian popular sentiment of having been neglected all these years by the federal BN government when it comes to developmental needs. Many demanded that the federal government devolve more power to the East Malaysian state. Others clamor for a high degree of autonomy and even secession (albeit seditious) from Malaysia.

    And the late Sarawak chief minister’s seemingly audacious engagement with the federal government which appears to have yielded some concessions from the latter also emboldened many a “Sabah First” politician and activist. As such, USA “component” parties may be feeling that a huge wave of sentiment for Sabah rights is imminent and they would like to ride on it to gain political advantage. Emphasis on “Sabahness” thus becomes a vital symbolic gesture for USA. That and painting most of their political opponents as “made in West Malaysia”.

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