After 2020 state election, political fatigue rather than election fever in Sabah this GE15

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KOTA KINABALU, Nov 13 — Along most roads around Sabah, party flags, posters and billboards are scarce, with most concentrated strategically at road crossings rather than fully dotting the pothole-ridden roads of the state like in previous elections. Many that were put up have also been ravaged by bad weather.

The many big rallies previously met with fanfare every night have been replaced with smaller, more intimate meet-the-people sessions, many in homes or walkabouts.

The bigger budgets of coalitions like Barisan Nasional (BN) and even the state’s Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) can afford bigger fancier locations and attract bigger crowds, but the opposition has so far utilised existing public spaces for their events.

With the state having gone through three big cycle elections in four years — the 14th general election in 2018, the snap state election in 2020, and the by-elections in Sandakan (2019) and Kimanis (2020) — it is understandable how political fatigue and apathy have crept into voters’ sentiment.

“It’s the same thing over and over for the last few years. The promise of development, MA63, improve the economy... it’s all talk and it’s boring,” said one voter from the state capital Kota Kinabalu.

Despite the perception that the recurring topics have grown stale, political analysts polled by Malay Mail however stressed that those issues still matter to Sabah voters. However, they felt that the onus is on politicians to relate those issues to more pressing ones such as the food on the table.

“People on the ground feel this election is just another show of how power-crazy politicians disrupt their everyday livelihood. Just when life was about to return to ‘business as normal’, ‘here comes another election, another government’,” Universiti Teknologi Mara’s Tony Paridi Bagang told Malay Mail.

So far the main contenders have spelt out their offers: The GRS-BN government’s campaign rides on continued development and prosperity, Pakatan Harapan (PH) promises sweeping changes of reform and good governance, while local party Warisan touts a local reset of what it claimed to be an innately rotten system.

But voters have instead turned to consider the cons of these coalitions, as much, if not more, than the pros.

Many Sabahans see GRS-BN as remnants of the BN big brother era, with a “you’re either with us or against us” attitude, while PH had its chance but blew it. Warisan, for all its good intentions, is not seen as having the credentials to implement its vision.

Sabah parties, coalitions putting out fires from friendly shots

Personal attacks have considerably been kept at a minimum, to be replaced instead by friendly fire.

PH and Warisan have been trading barbs, attacking each other for their part in the fall of the PH government and the many broken promises, while GRS and BN in some seats have had to deal with clashes from disgruntled parties.

A standout character in the last week — perhaps not for the right reasons — is former Warisan vice-president Datuk Peter Anthony who is now leading his own Parti Kesejahteraan Demokratik Masyarakat (PKDM).

Peter has been making waves since day one of campaigning as the Melalap assemblyman began stringing together his lineup of ambitious candidates, among others a leading tourism figure, a shrewd politician hell-bent on contesting Kota Marudu, and a former state footballer to go against the GRS-BN alliance.

PKDM previously openly declared itself to be GRS-friendly but pending its approval into the coalition, has decided to instead contest the seats anyway against GRS-BN — leading to accusations that it is in cahoots with GRS to split BN’s votes.

When prevented from contesting the Tenom seat on nomination day, Peter’s supporters stormed the nomination centre and police had to deploy tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd, making national headlines.

Unable to contest in Tenom, he has instead accepted independent candidate Riduan Rubin’s application to join the party. Riduan and PKDM will be able to share resources in campaigning, although he will still only be recognised as an independent candidate if he wins.

Another talked-about friendly fight is from Beluran incumbent Datuk Ronald Kiandee who broke party ranks to defend his seat on a Perikatan Nasional ticket. Both Kiandee and Riduan are contesting against the sanctioned Umno candidate.

Less controversial but equally damning is BN’s Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS) Datuk Ewon Ebin who is contesting against Bersatu’s Datuk Jonathan Yasin.

Both GRS chairman Datuk Hajiji Noor and Sabah BN chairman Datuk Bung Moktar have had to fend off speculations and criticism of the disputes, and insisted that the electoral pact — and the state government — is still and will be, intact.

So who has the obvious advantage?

The coalitions have also had to make do with little backing from their national counterparts and allies.

Only PH’s Datuk Anwar Ibrahim and Gerakan Tanah Air’s Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad have shown up in the Land Below the Wind. DAP’s Anthony Loke is expected to make a showing as well.

Warisan, on a mission to prove its mettle by standing solo this time around, has been relying on Shafie’s small but mighty persona as he races around the state and parts of Peninsular Malaysia to extoll the party’s moderate, multi-ethnic approach.

He seems set to retain parts of the Sabah east coast where his influence among the Bajau and Suluk communities are undeniable, but the odds are even in all other seats including Malay and KadazanDusun-Murut seats of Sepanggar, Kota Belud and Penampang where his incumbents are considered popular.

No single party seems to have the obvious advantage for now. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
No single party seems to have the obvious advantage for now. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

No single party seems to have the obvious advantage for now. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

If the opposition can hold on to the seats it won in GE14, it will be considered a win in this new climate. Warisan had won eight (one has quit and one has died since), while GRS and BN currently hold eight and three respectively, PH holds six and Parti Bangsa Malaysia one.

Warisan has a good chance of winning over urban constituents in Tawau, but Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan’s ethnic Chinese majority may stick with the tried-and-true DAP.

But for Muslim and non-Muslim native seats which make up the other 22 seats in Sabah, the trend is unclear. The many options, camps, and chaos make it impossible to predict human behaviour, especially with the rural or young first-time voters.

GTA, the newest coalition in the running, has yet to prove it can make any kind of impact.

But taking into account BN’s established machinery and GRS’resources, no party has proven to have the lead in what looks like a footrace to the finish line.

Tactics, games and trump cards are expected to emerge in the second half of the campaign and perk the interests of voters before the final sprint.