For the first time, national rather than Sabah-only parties have shown that they can constitute a credible opposition force in the state, observes G Lim. In putting up a credible performance in Sabah in the last general election, the PKR and, to a lesser extent, the DAP have achieved a remarkable result.
On face value, nothing much changed in Sabah, despite the tsunami that hit the peninsula. As in 2004, the BN scored a virtual clean sweep in both the state and federal elections, losing only one federal seat, Kota Kinabalu –where it came a rather embarrassing third behind both the DAP and PKR – and one state assembly seat, Sri Tanjong. The overall share of the vote that went to the BN was slightly down from 2004 but still dominant, at around 60 per cent this time compared with 65 per cent last time.
As in 2004, at least some of the credit for the extent of the BN victory must be given to the DAP and PKR in recognition of their failure to cooperate effectively in the state. As in Sarawak, relations between the two main opposition parties contesting in the state, PKR and the DAP, are frosty at best and they failed to come to a comprehensive seat agreement, running candidates against each other in eight state assembly seats and three parliamentary seats. In Inanam, Likas, and Luyang, all state assembly seats in and around Kota Kinabalu, and in Kapayan, this resulted in the BN winning with less than half the votes cast on a split in the opposition vote.
An effective opposition presence
Yet, in fact, much has changed between these two elections. While the BN share of the vote has remained broadly the same, the non-BN vote has shifted noticeably. In 2004, the majority of those not voting BN instead voted for one of the many independent candidates. Keadilan and the DAP were between them able to collect no more than about 14% of the vote (see table). This time around, independents took only around 5% of the vote – although there were still plenty contesting both at the federal and state level. In other words, DAP and particularly PKR have managed to establish an effective presence in the state that was lacking four years ago.
Sabah Opposition Parties
This drastic improvement in PKR’s performance in particular has largely been due to a long grassroots-building strategy that the party has been undertaking in the state since at least last year. Whereas in previous years, PKR’s influence did not extend significantly further than Kota Kinabalu and the largely urban West Coast division, this time around the party was able to contest and win a reasonable share of the vote virtually across the whole state.
Credit must go to the PKR, therefore, for taking this long term strategy of going into the kampongs and building up core bases of support across the state. Yet, as anyone who has spent time in Sabah over the past couple of years could tell, there is quite substantial discontent in the state. Inflation has hit Sabahans particularly hard, as the impact is increased by the extent to which many basic commodities have to be imported to the state. While the areas around Kota Kinabalu have seen endless new shopping-cum-residential areas springing up, many rural regions are still failing to see any benefits from the post-PBS governments. Why was the PKR unable to capitalise further on these discontents?
Two main reasons. Firstly, the PKR, particularly in the rural areas, suffers from something of a credibility gap. Many people are discontented – as turnout and feedback at their ceramah clearly indicate sentiment in favour of the opposition. Many people can still remember when the PBS left the BN for the first time back in 1990, after which the federal government virtually cut off Sabah, reducing federal grants to the bare minimum, blocking timber exports and taking other measures that seriously hampered the local economy. So while people may not be happy with the economic management of the BN, many also find it hard to believe that the PKR could do any better, particularly as long as the BN controls the federal government.
Secondly, a lot can be attributed to a virtual implosion in the party at the top levels in the last few weeks running up to the campaign period, and the campaign itself, which largely undid much of the good grassroots work of the previous years.
For the most part, PKR in Sabah has assiduously avoided getting involved in issues of race and religion. The state liaison chief, Ansari Abdullah, is a Muslim of mixed descent and well-liked across communities. But the local party also has a number of, for want of a better term, ethnic cliques: the predominantly Chinese supporters who see Christina Liew as their ‘representative’ in the party, non-Muslim Sabah bumiputera, who largely coalesce around Jeffrey Kitingan, and the Muslim bumiputera, who tend to look to Ansari.
In-fighting between these groups for candidate lists in the run up to the election soured relationships and, it seems, fed down to the grassroots level where many activists who had committed a lot of energy to campaigning on the party’s behalf felt somewhat betrayed by the BN-style politicking of their party leaders.
This is certainly a problem that the PKR has to address. But this should not undermine the fact that in putting up a credible performance this time round, the PKR and, to a lesser extent, the DAP have achieved a remarkable result in Sabah.
G Lim is a post-doctoral researcher in Malaysian politics at a UK university
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