Home News Asia News Political intrigue builds as battle for Sabah begins

Political intrigue builds as battle for Sabah begins

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A health personnel sanitises the Kompleks Wisma Wanita nomination centre in Kota Kinabalu September 11, 2020. ― Bernama pic
A health personnel sanitises the Kompleks Wisma Wanita nomination centre in Kota Kinabalu September 11, 2020. ― Bernama pic

KOTA KINABALU, Sept 12 ― More drama is set to unfold as nomination for the 16th Sabah election takes place today, with observers expecting the poll to be the most chaotic ever in the state’s history.

The political shake-up since the monumental 14th general election has seen decades-old alliances broken and strange bedfellows found, setting the stage for an unpredictable contest for control of the Borneo state.

The premature election is being held as the 26-month-old “Warisan Plus” state government dissolved the assembly after political rivals mounted an attempted takeover through defections.

Adding to the unpredictability is the debut of 13 new state seats — mostly in the rural and semi rural areas — where fresh blood will contest.

If the politics alone was not messy enough, Sabah has also become the epicentre of Malaysia’s Covid-19 cases at the moment, courtesy of the Benteng cluster that contributed 167 new cases yesterday alone.

While the contest for individual seats will be a scrum — no seat is expected to see a straight fight — the main battle is between Warisan Plus and a loose Opposition alliance cobbled around Perikatan Nasional (PN) that holds federal power.

For the incumbent, Warisan is contesting 46 seats while Pakatan Harapan’s DAP and PKR will challenge for seven each, Amanah is contesting one and the aligned local United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation (Upko) is running in 12.

As for the PN grouping, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) is contesting 19 seats; Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku (STAR), eight; and Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP), two.

The allied Barisan Nasional (BN) will field Umno candidates in 31 seats, MCA in two, and Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS) in five. The PN-friendly Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) has said it will run in 15, putting it in conflict with its supposed allies.

However, BN chairman Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi claimed yesterday that this has been resolved.

With friends like these

One major reason for intrigue in this election is that not all the alliances are friendly.

For instance, Warisan president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal must contend with an aggrieved PKR whose president, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, believes his party should be given more seats to contest.

Ties between the two men were already strained after Shafie refused to back Anwar to be the prime minister during the country’s political crisis earlier this year.

PKR also appeared to play mind games when it announced it was contesting in 14 seats before the coalition named its candidates, but eventually accepted seven after the intervention of state chairman Datuk Christina Liew.

Liew expressed confidence that there would be no sabotage against Warisan allies but disgruntled or loyal Anwar supporters may not feel the same way.

“Anwar will want Shafie to win, for the sake of Pakatan Harapan, but they will not want to see Shafie win too big, lest he outshine him on the national political stage, where both Anwar and Shafie have been touted as possible prime minister candidates,” said Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun.

Affairs are also no less troubled on PN’s side as five of its parties could still clash in 11 seats. Although Zahid has insisted that this will not happen, nothing is certain until nomination ends.

The clashes could take place Bengkoka, Tanjung Aru, Telupid, Paginatan, Matunggong, Tandek,  Kadamaian, Sook, Tulid, Kapayan and Karamunting.

Aside from inter-party rivalry, there is also simmering discontent within Umno from among those not selected to contest, Oh noted.

Former Sabah chief minister Tan Sri Musa Aman fell out with the Umno leadership after his bid to seize control of the state failed and has been shunned since. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Former Sabah chief minister Tan Sri Musa Aman fell out with the Umno leadership after his bid to seize control of the state failed and has been shunned since. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

A missing protagonist

One major mystery for most is the continued absence of former Sabah chief minister Tan Sri Musa Aman whose abortive takeover bid triggered this election.

While he hinted earlier this week that he would go “back to Sungai Manila”, one of the new seats within the Libaran constituency that was adjacent to Sungai Sibuga where he is the incumbent, he has not been named as a candidate in either or anywhere else.

He fell out with the Umno leadership after his bid to seize control of the state failed and has been shunned since.

Musa was believed to be in Kuala Lumpur yesterday for his last-ditch legal attempt to block the Sabah election that has also since failed.

Some observers say he could still force his way into contention either as an independent or by strong-arming another party to make room for him.

However, Universiti Malaysia Sabah professor Lee Kuok Tiung believed this would have already happened if it were the case.

“So what I think is that he did not push for it himself. Maybe he is aiming for a parliamentary seat, or calling it off from politics,” said UMS’s professor Lee Kuok Tiung.

PN ship without captain?

While Shafie is the clear choice to return to his position as the CM in the event Warisan Plus wins, Musa’s absence meant there were no clear candidates from the PN coalition to lead the state.

The coalition has not specifically identified one of its leaders for the role and none appear to be strong contenders.

Superficially, it would appear that Sabah Umno chief Datuk Bung Moktar Radin would be the natural choice in the event PN takes the election, but Oh said the former was not well regarded outside of his own party and constituency.

This was made apparent when former federal minister Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan and other Sabah leaders held a press conference to reject Bung as Umno’s election director, saying it was a “suicidal” choice. The latter has since retracted this.

Oh suggested that former Sabah CM Datuk Seri Salleh Said Keruak would be a more suitable choice over Bung, while others have pointed to Sabah PPBM chief Datuk Hajiji Noor.

Datuk Seri Anifah Aman is running in the Bongawan seat and has said that PCS would contest an ambitious 72 seats with the aim of forming the state government on its own. ― Picture by Hari Anggara
Datuk Seri Anifah Aman is running in the Bongawan seat and has said that PCS would contest an ambitious 72 seats with the aim of forming the state government on its own. ― Picture by Hari Anggara

Spoilers abound

Several parties have also taken this opportunity to come out of the woodwork, riding on current sentiment of change by promising a Sabah administration by Sabahans.

Chief among them is Parti Cinta Sabah led by Musa’s younger brother, Datuk Seri Anifah Aman. The former foreign minister is running in the Bongawan seat and has said that PCS would contest an ambitious 72 seats with the aim of forming the state government on its own.

Another is Liberal Democratic Party under Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat, one of Sabah’s only three ethnic Chinese CMs, whose platform was to rid Sabah of undocumented migrants.

Also in the fray are little known Parti Gagasan Rakyat Sabah and Parti Harapan Rakyat.

While none are expected to win in any significant way, observers said they could still be influential in the event the contest between Warisan Plus and PN is close.

“Except for the party leaders, others would have to work hard to introduce themselves as they do not have the vehicle of a big party.

“However, these parties just need to win one seat and they can be the kingmaker and they will be in a position to make demands, for example a ministership,” said Oh.

Nominations today begin at 8am and end at 12pm while voting will take place on September 26.

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