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Sabah, Sarawak the kingmakers of GE14

  • PH's dream of unseating BN is indeed a tall order. Sabah and Sarawak will continue to be kingmakers to ensure the survival of Najib and BN in GE14.

By Jeniri Amir

If in the past the 2008 and 2013 general elections were labeled the mothers of all elections, then the upcoming GE14 will aptly be called the father of all elections. This stems from the presumption that the coming general elections will be a matter of life or death for the ruling coalition and the opposition pact alike.

To ensure its victory, BN not only needs to win as many seats as possible in Peninsular Malaysia, in particular rural and Felda constituencies, far more importantly it must also win as many seats as possible in Sabah and Sarawak.

The two East Malaysian states are not known as BN's fixed deposit states for nothing. If not for these two states, BN would have been defeated long ago.

As a matter of fact, any political camp that has an eye on Putrajaya will not get its way without first taking control of Sabah and Sarawak. But, is it true that the states will remain as fixed deposit states or the kingmakers in the coming general elections?

In 2013, BN scored impressively in both the parliamentary and state assembly elections in Sabah, with 25 parliamentary seats and 60 state seats won, while Sarawak BN clinched 31 parliamentary seats and 71 state seats. Sarawak's state seats will not be contested this time as the state elections were just held in 2016.

Under the current political scenario, it is impossible for BN to continue to rule in Putrajaya without winning Sabah and Sarawak. Similarly, without strong support from these two states, sure enough Pakatan Harapan's journey to Putrajaya will be obscured, toughened and tortuous.

In fact, the opposition has reached a saturation point in Chinese-majority seats in Sarawak, with six parliamentary seats in GE13, namely Kuching, Stampin, Sarikei, Lanang, Sibu and Miri. DAP in particular can no longer penetrate into the other rural areas and may even risk losing Sarikei and Sibu based on the 2016 state election results.

They hardly have any significant strength and influences over the rural areas which are invariably BN's strongholds difficult to be pierced by the opposition. While one or two rural seats may swing towards the opposition, it is far for them from actually bringing down the existing regime.

Their so-called Sarawak Dream or Sabah Dream are at best cosmetic in nature, unable to bring any substantial effects.

As for Sabah, the opposition only managed three parliamentary seats in GE13, and the maximum number of seats they can capture this time is only 15 vis-à-vis the 12 seats they are currently holding.

With the opposition now split into five different factions -- Barisan Borneo Bersatu, Perikatan Sabah Bersatu, Pakatan Harapan, Parti Warisan Sabah and Parti Kebangsaan Sabah -- is it possible for them to emerge as a strong unified force to bring down BN? Or are they just pitted against one another to the advantage of BN?

Furthermore, with Umno now holding the largest number of state seats and generally perceived as one party that brings development especially to the bumiputra community in the state, it is obvious BN will very much remain in the hearts of voters.

Parliamentary seats that will likely fall into the hands of the opposition are the predominantly KadazanDusun Murut constituencies, i.e. Penampang, Keningau, Pensiangan, Kota Marudu, Chinese majority seats Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan, as well as Muslim-majority seats of Sepanggar and Semporna.

For the voters in Sabah and Sarawak, Pakatan Harapan chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad hardly helps the opposition parties there. Tun Mahathir is seen as a prime minister who brought a great deal of problems to the state, including the Project IC and immigration issues that have since reduced the KadazanDusun Murut community in the state to a minority today. The 92-year-old leader is also said as not having brought as much development to the state as has prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

Najib is considered a compassionate leader who understands the aspirations and problems of the six million people living in the two East Malaysian states. He has made frequent visits to the states, knowing that they are of paramount importance to ensure the survival of BN and himself. Realizing the "Sabah for Sabahans" and "Sarawak for Sarawakians" sentiments there, Najib announced that Malaysian Day would be a national public holiday. He has given his best to the two states, including the iconic Pan-Borneo Highway project.

Why did the political tsunami of 2008 bypass the states of Sabah and Sarawak? Political tsunami will only emerge if the number of ageing voters is dwindling and the number of young voters swells. And even this could only happen if the young voters are aware of their roles and responsibilities and have registered as voters.

As of September 2017, there were still 3.5 million Malaysians eligible to vote but had not registered as voters.

Political tsunami will only happen in these two states when the literate and educated middle class is expanding with remarkable rural-to-urban migration. These people are more aware of the developments taking place around them, mainly through the alternative media.

Moving forward, the upcoming general elections will not see dramatic shifts in the political landscape of Sabah and Sarawak. Rural and semi-rural constituencies with majority bumiputra voters are almost certain to remain within the grasps of BN.

The voters in Sabah and Sarawak are still very much trapped in the politics of fundamental needs. If in West Malaysia there has been a relatively high degree of political awareness among the voters of the significance of democracy and election, the rural voters in these two states still lack a profound understanding of politics, democracy and election.

To most of them, election means making a trip to the polling stations and checking the box against a BN candidate. To them, anyone who offers development, including instant material offerings in the forms of attap houses, water tanks, paved roads, etc., will get their votes.

The voters of Sabah and Sarawak, who have been brainwashed for such a long time by the powerful BN propaganda as a result of their own illiteracy and ignorance, will not be bold enough to embrace a drastic change by rejecting BN.

BN's success in instilling in the minds of voters of its own ability and the opposition's inability to bring development will cause the aged and uneducated voters ignorant of the issues plaguing the BN to continue supporting its candidates.

Pledges of development will always be BN's most potent ammunition that will continue to be employed to win the hearts of voters.

For the opposition to make any effective advances, it will require excellent logistics. Long before the elections, BN has already reserved all the helicopters, boats, land vehicles, hotels, petrol stations, express boats and community halls for campaigning. It is an uphill task for the opposition campaigners to penetrate the states crisscrossed by rivers, forests and mountains, less so with their very limited resources, including financial resources vis-à-vis the ruling coalition.

Another obstacle for Pakatan Harapan is the mainstream media in the states such as TV, radio and newspapers which are all controlled by the government or organizations linked to the ruling party. Having said that, the emergence of new media has bit by bit changed the media landscape in these two states, as people no longer depend wholly on RTM or the local newspapers for news.

For Pakatan Harapan to be seated in Putrajaya, it has to win at least 25 out of the 56 seats up for grabs in Sabah and Sarawak, something unlikely to achieve in the coming general elections. For GE14, the opposition can only look to 13 seats at best.

BN is still widely perceived as the party that majority of voters in the two states can pin their hopes on under the leadership of Najib, seen as committed and sincere in fighting to change the destinies of the people of Sabah and Sarawak.

Given the weaknesses and limitations of Pakatan Harapan from various aspects compared to BN, the dream of unseating BN is indeed a tall order. Sabah and Sarawak will continue to be kingmakers to ensure the survival of Najib and BN in GE14.

(Associate Professor Dr Jeniri Amir is a political analyst currently working as a lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.)



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