RANAU, Sept 22 — In the hilly interior reaches of Sabah where rural residents of the Dusun and Murut tribes reside, an intense battle is being fought by several political parties for their votes this Saturday.
The Paginatan state seat in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, where the majority of the people are Christian Dusun farmers, is seeing a nine-cornered fight, out of which three are “friendly” components of the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) Opposition bloc.
In past Sabah elections, national-level political parties like Umno would form local alliances with state-based parties. This time around, the Malay party sprung a surprise by fielding its candidate, newcomer Junaidi Sahat for Paginatan.
However, in the GRS triangle here, Umno is considered the outsider.
The non-Muslim native majority seat is typically a Barisan Nasional (BN) stronghold held by Upko, and was won by former Kota Kinabalu mayor Datuk Abidin Madingkir in GE14.
However, Abidin later left for Warisan but subsequently defected. He was one of the 32 assemblymen who threw his support behind former chief minister Tan Sri Musa Aman, triggering the ongoing state election.
He is now with a local Kadazandusun Murut (KDM) party, Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku (STAR), and is contesting on a Perikatan Nasional (PN) ticket.
Some villagers said Abidin won in the general election two years ago because he was running under the BN banner. They think he will not command the same support under PN.
“Sapa suruh dia?” said one villager in Malay, which translates in English to “who asked him?”
“People here voted for BN before and now we don’t know if we can trust him,” the same villager added, declining to be named.
“People here have been talking about going local, for some time now. Yes, there’s STAR but... you know-lah Jeffrey,” Rosdey told Malay Mail during a visit. The town of Paginatan consists of little more than a few wooden shoplots.
Locals see Abidin’s greatest challenger out of his eight competitors in Arthur Sen, also a former Upko Youth chief who has been a familiar face in the area for years and is now with Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), which is also in the PN and GRS alliance.
“We all know Arthur — he’s good too. Popular with the youth, hardworking and he is around a lot,” said Rosdey Banjer, a local entrepreneur.
“But his problem will be the older generation. But perhaps the older generation here will go with PBS. Of the parties contesting here, PBS still holds some sentimental value,” he added.
For PBS, that would mean its risky move in coming out from under the BN banner to stand as an equal partner under PN, would pay off.
Running under the BN flag this time is newcomer Junaidi. The Umno division secretary is a party loyalist who has been working under the radar for years, emerging into the public eye in the wake of the post-GE14 mass exodus to Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu).
“To be honest, we are not happy with the clashes. We like peaceful things. And we do feel like maybe other candidates are better known, but we are with BN all the way,” said Matmail Sinteh, a local farmer.
In the Warisan corner is Georgina George, an Upko hopeful making her electoral debut. There is also Parti Anak Negeri’s president Datuk Henrynus Amin in the nine-cornered fight for the Paginatan seat.
Similarly in Tulid, a newly created state seat in Pensiangan, three candidates from parties friendly with each other in the PN coalition are locked in a seven-way battle: Flovia Ng from STAR, Matusin Bowie from PBRS and Suman Yasambun from PBS.
Observers said that of the three, PBRS’ Bowie has the best chance, given his popularity and his history as a state football player.
“The others, I don’t really know,” said one villager who attended a recent BN campaign rally, declining to be named.
However, another villager Eric Jinipis said Mudi Dubing from Warisan has been making the rounds in the rural constituency and views him as a good candidate despite being relatively new.
“He is also an anak jati. So it is quite tempting to choose him. But this area is normally a BN area.
“I think it will be hard to choose, because of the number of candidates. We just go with what we know at the moment. Although it does seem like sometimes one candidate is better, it’s safer to go with the party we know,” Eric said.
In the 16th Sabah state polls, an unprecedented 447 candidates are vying for 73 seats. There are multi-cornered fights in all seats. In some constituencies, there are only three runners. In others, it’s an all out battle with 11 candidates.
There are at least 17 clashes within the GRS Opposition alliance, most of them in seats where the majority are non-Muslim Kadazan Murut and Dusun.
Both Paginatan and Tulid are the only two with all three GRS components running against each other although there has been talk of ongoing negotiations for an agreement to support the best candidate even as the clock counts down to polling on September 26.
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