The dust has yet to settle in Sabah, but Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim is not going to wait. He and his Pakatan Rakyat coalition have already begun to move in on neighboring Sarawak, the domain of white-haired ‘Rajah’ Taib Mahmud who has ruled as and how he pleased for more than 3 decades.
“The ground is moving left, right and centre in Sarawak BN. It is the right time for Pakatan to go in for the last mile,” PKR vice president Tian Chua told Malaysia Chronicle.
“BN in Sarawak is very split now. Technically, at least 4 legislators have left their parties though they remain BN-friendly. The emergence of Sarawak Workers Party will further weaken BN.”
Writing on the wall for BN
Tian and his coalition have just welcome on board 3 senior Sabah BN leaders, who quit their parties, citing disenchantment with the federal and state governments for not keeping promises or uplifting the lives of Sabahans, most of whom remain impoverished despite the state’s wealth of natural resources.
Prime Minister Najib Razak personally flew in to rally the troops but was not able to stop Lajim Ukin, an Umno Supreme Council member, Wilfrid Bumburing, the Tuaran MP, and Senator Maijol Mahap from quitting the BN. The trio have confirmed plans to form an Opposition-friendly independent movement to rally Sabah leaders to fight for change in their state.
The move is ominous as both Sabah and Sarawak hold enough seats in the Malaysian Parliament to affect the outcome of the 13th general election, which must be held before June 2013. Of the 222 parliamentary seats, 25 are in Sabah and 31 in Sarawak, giving the pair a combined 25% control of the august House.
Najib himself has called Sabah and Sarawak the BN’s “fixed deposits”, a term that has infuriated the residents there, adding to their displeasure with the Peninsular Malaysia-based federal government whom they scorn as being corrupt and greedy. BN leaders have been accused of amassing enormous riches at the expense of East Malaysians without reciprocal investment in developing and modernizing the two states.
Taib is more worried about Najib
The 76-year-old Taib is also much reviled. His PBB party holds an iron grip on the state government due to decades of gerrymandering and other electoral trickery.
But it is not Anwar and the federal Opposition that Taib fears or has an axe to grind with. It is Najib and his Umno party that Taib distrusts. So far, Taib has succeeded in foiling all attempts including by former premier Mahathir Mohamad to ‘Umno-nize’ Sarawak. Sarawak BN consists of PBB, the down-spiraling SUPP as well as several other small parties.
“Taib is not so worried about Pakatan, he is Borneo-centric at heart. He is suspicious of the Semenanjung (peninsula) forces entering Sarawak and it is Najib and Umno Semenanjung that he hates,” Tian told Malaysia Chronicle.
“He is still very sore about last year’s state elections. He was humiliated on his own home ground when Najib openly committed to ending his appointment as Chief Minister and hinted Taib would resign after the state assembly polls.”
In April 2011,Taib managed to beat off the Pakatan and held onto the state government. However, DAP and PKR made huge inroads with DAP winning 12 state seats and PKR 3. Long-established BN parties such as SUPP were annihilated
In the next general election, only seats in the federal Parliament are up for grabs. Speculation has swirled Taib might sponsor independent candidates or the Sarawak Workers Party to fight the candidates selected by Najib.
“It looks like Najib and Taib will fight a proxy war by supporting different sets of candidates. Taib also wants all Sarawak MPs to be obedient to him but Najib has insisted that he will do the final selection instead of leaving it up to the respective parties. This means Najib will plant candidates loyal to the central or federal leadership and not to Taib personally,” said Tian.
“Ultimately, it means Taib will lose his grip. Do you see Taib accepting this sort situation without hitting back?”
Already, cat fights and spats over who will be chosen to contest and which seat to contest have erupted across the Sarawak political landscape. Earlier this moth, controversial Meluan assemblyman Wong Judat finally resigned from his party Sarawak Progressive Democratc Party after months of speculation.
According to Judat, he resigned because of Julau MP Joseph Salang’s “stubborn” insistence on defending his seat. But some pundits do not think that was the real reason, pointing out that Judat had barely a week ago said that he was ” still 100 percent with SPDP”.
Salang is also a BN leader and vice president of Parti Rakyat Sarawak. It is believed that “power play” amongst the BN component parties had forced Judat’s hand. State BN sec-gen Stephen Rundi had publicly threatened to take disciplinary against Judat for failing to’abide by Barisan’s spirit of unity to win the general election’.
As for the controversial Sarawak Workers Party led by Larry Sng, whom many regard as Taib’s protege, Najib has himself issued a public chastisement. The PM questioned SWP’s sincerity in proclaiming itself “BN-friendly” and yet wanted to contest 6 of PRS’ seats.
“SWP cannot claim to be BN-friendly when it wants to contest against the BN. Such action is obviously not consistent. If it is really BN-friendly, what is wrong in supporting all BN candidates. That is the crux of the issue,” the prime minister told a media conference in June.
Najib said even if SWP managed to win any seat in the coming general election, it would not be invited to join the BN.
“There is no question of joining the BN. The important thing is to support all BN candiadates. Otherwise, if they plant their candidates, the votes will be split. My advice to the people of Sarawak is for them to support only the BN,” said the PM.
As for Taib, he has only commented that he had tried to “dissuade” Larry from joining SWP.
Opportunity for Pakatan
Meanwhile, the Sarawak BN shadow play is being watched and followed closely by the federal Opposition. But while the mounting discontent and shifting ground provides opportunity, Pakatan leaders admit it would not be so easy in Sarawak for form new alliances.
However, Tian predicts Pakatan will make unprecedented headway, with DAP blazing the trail.
“We still wait and see. Some preliminary discussion had started last year but it is not as advanced as in Sabah. But SUPP is very weak and no match for DAP. For PKR, we are focusing our efforts on the traditional KDM areas and PAS is also breaking new ground,” said Tian, the chief negotiator in the talks with the Sabah BN leaders who had quit last month to form their own movement for change.