Analysts split over Gabungan Rakyat Sabah and what it means for national politics

An election poster featuring Perikatan Nasional chairman Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is seen in Moyog, Sabah September 21, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
An election poster featuring Perikatan Nasional chairman Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is seen in Moyog, Sabah September 21, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 24 — The fractious nature of politics which saw Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) component members challenge its allies in almost a quarter of the 73 seats up for grabs in the state election has led analysts to take a closer look to see if this bodes ill for the rest of the nation when the 15th general election finally arrives.

Although it is possible that Perikatan Nasional (PN), Barisan Nasional (BN) and PAS may end up fighting one another over seat allocations in the future, it is more likely that the outcome of Sabah’s state election will have minimal impact on national politics as a whole.

UiTM Prof Mazlan Ali said each GRS member has its own direction and goal, let alone national parties or coalitions like PN, BN and PAS.

“I have observed that GRS has been using Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s popularity to boost its chances at winning, given the number of posters with his face and the ‘Abah’ slogan,” he told Malay Mail.

Adding that Muhyiddin’s popularity with Sabahans is due to the policies implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic and their related incentives, nonetheless, Mazlan said the differing views between PN and BN as to who should become chief minister will prove problematic.

“The people in Sabah see PN as more stable and less problematic than the other parties allied with it. This will be a test of sorts for the 15th general election when it comes to dividing seats.

“PAS said in its muktamar in Kelantan this year that it is aiming for 40 seats in the north and east coast of the peninsula, which has been agreed to by Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia but disputed by Umno,” he said, referring to PAS’ annual congress.

Mazlan said this should not be taken lightly, as Umno and BN’s string of victories in recent by-elections is a sign that it is on the road to recovery.

“Their support has returned, and Umno now believes more than ever that it can go it alone and contest without any allies or other parties.

“This sentiment is particularly prevalent among youth members and, to an extent, grassroots leaders, even as many of Umno’s top leadership still feel they need Muafakat Nasional,” he said.

The analyst named Umno as the party likely to raise tensions, adding it will refuse to surrender any seats it currently holds to Bersatu.

“Umno is a strong party with three million grassroots members, and it needs at least 80 seats in the Dewan Rakyat to control Malaysian politics. At its peak, it could gain more than that, even as many as 90 seats.

“As it barely scraped through with just over 50 seats in the last general election, Umno will be very reluctant to let go of any, not to mention its view of Bersatu as a mere splinter party. Indeed, I think PAS and Bersatu are more in sync.

Even for PAS, Mazlan said that its leadership would likely want to court MCA and MIC rather than ally solely with Umno, since the two are already contending for the same Malay-Muslim constituents.

“MCA and MIC at least stand a chance of gaining the non-Malay and non-Muslim votes, which is of immense value to PAS,” he said.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Prof Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid took a different view of things, saying that although the political squabbling in Sabah is interesting to note, ultimately, Sabah and the peninsula have different historical structures and biography.

“The bottomline in Sabah is that Sabahans want their local parties to represent them. The east and west coasts of Sabah have different views of acceptable parties compared to the peninsula, rife with factionalism that causes disagreements over candidates and seats.

“Because of the differences between Sabah and the peninsula, we cannot simply predict what happens in Sabah will also happen in the peninsula.

“In Sabah, rural development, inclusivity, the Malaysia Agreement 1963, are still the pitching lines for most politicians and Bumiputera, while the peninsula is playing a different game card altogether,” she said, noting that the Bumiputera there comprised many indigenous groups who were not all Muslim in contrast to the peninsula where the term is almost synonymous with Malays.

However, Kartini said it is obvious that tensions are already beginning to foment between Umno and Bersatu, which may surface even before the 15th general election takes place.

“Bargaining and negotiating for seats is a process that requires a lot of give and take. But here and there we are hearing that Umno members are unhappy with Bersatu members formerly with them, who won seats in the 14th general election.

“Not to mention there are also voters who wanted the real deal of these seats previously won by Umno to remain in its hands instead of Bersatu’s. At the end of the day, the politics of interest is superseding the idealism of a unity government, Malay-led nation, or rakyat nation,” she said.

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s Prof Jeniri Amir likewise believes the Sabah state election and the disputes between allied parties will have little-to-no impact on PN and other national parties.

“It all depends on the outcome thereof, I suppose. If things go in favour of GRS during the campaigning period, things will settle on their own eventually.

“You have to bear in mind that Sabah’s politics is different from the rest of Malaysia, including Sarawak. This is in terms of demography and the issues Sabahans face, and the underlying complexities therein,” he said.

One example Jeniri cited is the existence of numerous parties within the state, each with their own proverbial big guns or warlords.

“The situation there is not necessarily reflected in the peninsula and Sarawak’s politics, where there are two or three at most major parties and coalitions dominating the landscape.

“But we should not underestimate what can well happen in Sabah. If GRS fails to allocate seats and keep most satisfied, it will affect their chances by splitting the vote and result in dwindling support among voters,” he said.

In turn, Sabahans may view GRS as not being fit to rule the state. Jeniri added that now is more important than ever to address this issue and present a united front to the public.

“So long as this is left unaddressed, it will remain problematic to convince the people of the best candidates and party to run the show and to represent voters in Sabah.

“This state election is of vital importance as Sabahans cannot afford to choose the wrong party to represent them; otherwise, history will repeat itself. Again, Sabah cannot afford to have another costly political crisis as was seen this year,” he said.

The spotlight over GRS’ cobbled together alliance comes amid a new claim by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim yesterday that he commands majority support of the Dewan Rakyat, which includes defectors from both BN and PN.

While PN has indicated its support for Muhyiddin and Parti Warisan Sabah has kept mum over its own, Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi yesterday indicated that its MPs are free to back Anwar.

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