The voting trend speaks for itself: within East Malaysia, dissatisfaction against BN does not necessarily translate into a swing for PKR – unlike Peninsula Malaysia, the party will have to do more than win on 'protest votes' here.
THE CORRIDORS OF POWER
31/03/2013: Over the online media, the atmosphere is palpable and almost sweating with suspense. As we near election day, bloggers, commentators and the occasional pundits are beating with increasing intensity to the same rhythms of change: “it’s now or never”, “ubah”, “ini kalilah” and of course, how could you not forget, “ABU!” [Asalkan Bukan Umno].
Analysts alike are expecting a repeat of the March 2008 Tsunami, but this time it’s back with revenge: Peninsula Malaysia is expected to see bigger gains to Pakatan Rakyat - with the bastions of BN in Negeri Sembilan, Pahang and Johor finally caving in to the 'winds of change'. As the tides of politics continues on its charging path, Anwar Ibrahim inches ever closer to Malaysia's first "opposition" Federal government.
And yet, despite the inevitability of change, many anticipate that these electoral gains may not be enough to provide that much needed parliamentary majority. In pursuit for these last remaining seats, analysts and political strategists believe that the final frontline will be won, or lost, in Sabah - the last fortress of BN's 'fixed deposit'.
Winds of change sweeping Borneo?
As the political oven continues to heat up, we are increasingly seeing the battle fought openly in the sleepy state. Issue that irate Sabahans continue to pervade the news, blogs, and coffee shops: PATI (illegal immigrants), UMNO, underdevelopment, timber corruption, state autonomy, and the list goes on. The unfortunate Sulu incursion and RCI of Project IC has further 'activated' dormant voters, who were otherwise indifferent or fatigued to the politics of the state. It's no surprise then that, with an electorate ripe for change, victory is firmly within the grasps of Pakatan Rakyat - or is it?
Despite the solidified angst against BN, history suggests that this may not mean an easy victory for PR. If the 2011 Sarawak state election is to go by anything, the packed ceramahs, sloganeering crowds and near unanimous aggravation certainly does not translate into votes for the opposition.
A Sarawak down memory lane
Looking back at the recent 2011 Sarawak state election, the much vaunted expectations fell embarrassingly short on election day: opposition gained a total of 15 of the 71 state seats - 12 of which were delivered by DAP and a paltry 3 by PKR. Although DAP saw significant gains in the urban areas, PKR suffered a major blow, losing over 46 of the 49 seats it contested. This is despite an election occurring within three years of the March 2008 Tsunami - with anticipations of that very Tsunami finally arriving in Sarawak. Justifiably, the question that should be asked is 'Why did this happen?' and given the shared geography, history and voter preferences: 'Will this trend continue towards 2013 elections in Sabah?'
Many factors have been flagged but a key reason for the upset, as touted by Pakatan Rakyat leaders, was the failure to agree upon seat allocations; this resulted in multi-cornered fights, allegedly 'splitting' and 'diluting' opposition votes that resulted in a BN victory. However, closer analysis of the voting results shows an overlooked fact: even if multi-cornered fights did not occur, the vote counts indicate that Pakatan Rakyat, namely PKR, would still have lost all but 1 seat in Sarawak. Similar trends were seen in the 2008 Sabah state elections, where PKR failed to come close to any victory in all but 3 seats contested.
A further look at the results show that in many of the multi-cornered fights identified, PKR candidates were out-voted by DAP, local opposition parties and independent candidates - suggesting that the party may be a poor voting alternative, even within opposition. The voting trend speaks for itself: within East Malaysia, dissatisfaction against BN does not necessarily translate into a swing for PKR – unlike Peninsula Malaysia, the party will have to do more than win on 'protest votes' here.
And yet, there is hope for the party. The few gains made by PKR, provide an insight into how the party may achieve its goals in the Eastern front. In both the Sabah and Sarawak State elections, results indicate that voters were won over by the candidates’ ties to their communities, rather than PKR's brand and struggle. In Sarawak, the election of Baru Bian, See Chee How and Ali Anak Biju, were achieved through their long-known activism in Native Customary Rights and land rights.
Similarly in 2008 Sabah Election, the only PKR candidates that came close to victory (Daniel John Jambun, Awang Ahmad Shah and Jeffrey Kitingan) were supported by their familiarity as long-time serving leaders and activists within their communities. The result show potential - and PKR has the potential to win, but only through banking on the history and community ties of its local leaders.
The PKR Brand
However, looking forward to the 13th General Election, one thing is for certain: the PKR brand by itself does not hold up its weight in East Malaysia. Given the strong parochial and 'regionalist' sentiments of Sabah and Sarawak voters, PKR continues to be viewed as a 'Federal Party' or 'Parti Malaya', especially within the local bumiputera communities.
Indeed the actions of PKR's Head Bureau, sidelining local leadership choices and decision making of its Sabah Branch, has not gone unnoticed: as one independent Sabahan columnist, Erna Mahyuni, opines: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim attempted to parachute another West Malaysian in to lead Sabah PKR like he did with Azmin Ali. What next? Azmin Ali as Sabah chief minister? If that happens, I am surrendering my passport and moving to the Philippines.”
The perception of Sabah PKR as a "toothless body helpless to even choose its leaders" adds fuels to the perception of PKR and Anwar Ibrahim himself is continuing another ‘Parti Malaya’. These sentiments may continue to grow, as allegations and aspersions of Anwar's role in Project IC and the establishment of Sabah UMNO continues to resurface. Looking forward, Anwar Ibrahim realises that PKR (and even his own) brand and struggle will not be sufficient to swing votes in Sabah; it comes as no surprise then, that the de-facto PKR leader has opted to pursue an alternative (some might say risky) strategy to Putrajaya.
Hot Cross BNs
Since re-entering the political arena, Anwar Ibrahim has undertaken a major political exercise to resurrect the careers of former Sabah UMNO politicians. The re-entry of these players provides that much needed 'established community history and local leadership experience' that is lacking amongst its existing candidates. The clout of these leaders and their affinity with the local community may reverse PKR's dismal performance in Sabah and Sarawak, particularly in Muslim Bumiputera areas.
However, even this may not provide the sufficient number to reach Putrajaya; as a last remaining arsenal, Anwar Ibrahim is currently engaging with existing Sabah and Sarawak BN politicians to cross over to Pakatan Rakyat. Already 4 MPs have successfully defected, with more anticipated. Indeed mutiny is simmering within the state, as Sabah UMNO's own Salleh Said Keruak (current Speaker of the state's legislature) boasting ‘between 8 and 14 BN MPs (out of Sabah’s 25 seats) would leave BN’¹.
The strategy is risky, and if successful, will secure Anwar Ibrahim the comfortable majority to form Federal Government; on the other hand if the strategy is unsuccessful (as seen in the Perak 2009 debacle), the crossovers will back-fire disastrously - it will certainly be defining the point of Anwar's political demise.
Already, the negotiations have soiled PKR's reputation in East Malaysia - they are reminiscent of Anwar Ibrahim own involvement in the infamous 1994 cross-overs, that resulted in the fall of Sabah's independent PBS government - and importantly, UMNO’s entry into Sabah. In Peninsula Malaysia, the cross overs may signal that the BN ship is sinking; however, here in Sabah, they conjure up the nightmares of a previous decade.
No doubt with a successful crossover exercise, Malaysia will see a new Federal government - a final victory for more than a decade long struggle for Reformasi. Pakatan Rakyat supporters have argued that the Reformasi goal is so vital, that accepting BN politicians into the fold may be an essential means to a long awaited end. However, from the view of Sabahans and Sarawakians, the cross overs will mean one and one thing only: the same players of BN’s long standing politicians will continue to remain within their clout and power over East Malaysia. Yes, the Reformasi dream can be realised federally - but Sabah and Sarawak must be sacrificed under the yoke of its politicians.
Heading towards a PR disaster?
The political exercise has not sat well with local Sabahans, leading to the up-in-arms exit of its crucial local leaders, including the previously mentioned heavyweights Daniel Jambun, Awang Ahmad Shah and Jeffrey Kitingan. Furthermore, the strategy may be inadvertently doing the opposite of it's intent, strengthening the possibility of an ironic 'protest vote' against PKR; recent surveys conducted by Merdeka suggests this may be likely, particularly within Bumiputera communities and younger, professional-working Sabahans.²
If the cross overs are successful, it will place immediate pressure on the remaining Sabah and Sarawak PR politicians:
Are they willing to fully embrace BN politicians and parties as equals in Reformasi?
Are they willing to ally and work, with those who they have fought their whole political lives against?
Will they be able to put the party's interest, above the Rakyat's interest?
Already we see murmurs within the coalition, with Penang DAP politicians pressing forward an "Anti Hopping Law" and Karpal Singh's ever untimely comments (“The DAP has always been against party hopping”). We may even see local politicians leaving Pakatan Rakyat in protest - as one Sabah DAP State Leader ominously decried: "Why should anyone sacrifice for Anwar's ambitions?"³ Indeed, rather than being the answer, Sabah is turning out to be the source of many questions and doubt for both Pakatan Rakyat and Anwar Ibrahim.
- Shashi Karu
1. US Embassy Cables (Jun 2008, Wikileaks)
2. Public Opinion Survey for Parliament Kota Kinabalu & Penampang (March 2012).
3. US Embassy Cables (Jun 2008, Wikileaks)