Referendum on ‘new’ coalition

THE Sarawak polls can be seen as a referendum on Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) rule of the Borneo state.

It is the first polls for the rebranded Sarawak Barisan Nasional that has ruled the state for decades. After Barisan lost in the 14th General Election in 2018, four Sarawak parties – Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) and Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) – quit the coalition and formed GPS.

Universiti Malaya sociopolitics professor Awang Azman Awang Pawi notes that the Sarawak polls will determine the relevance of GPS after it was previously a component of Barisan.

“It is important for GPS to drive home that in Sarawak only local parties are more accepted by Sarawakians compared to non-local parties and new Sarawak-based parties. It is also to strengthen the perception that the stability of the combination of GPS leadership and being friendly to Federal government is the best formula to continue the development agenda in Sarawak,” he says.

For Prof James Chin of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, Australia, the state election is unique because it is PBB president Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg’s first election as chief minister and he is looking for a personal mandate.

Concurring that it is the first poll where Sarawak BN has been rebranded as GPS, Prof Chin says the coalition is looking for a big victory because Abang Johari has to try to get as close to 72 seats out of 82 as possible.

“If the coalition gets more than 72, then Abang Jo will be the undisputed king of Sarawak politics and nobody can undermine him as chief minister of Sarawak or the chairman of GPS. If it drops below 60 I think everyone will be very surprised and there will be a move to replace him,” he says, referring to the PBB president by his nickname.

According to Prof Chin, GPS is gung ho going into the elections as it is confident the opposition is divided. He notes that on the opposition side there are two groups.

“The first is what they call the Malayan parties – Pakatan Harapan with DAP and PKR. The second is local parties consisting of the serious contender PSB (Parti Sarawak Bersatu) and the high profile but no chance PBK (Parti Bumi Kenyalang) and Aspirasi (Sarawak People’s Aspiration Party), which are the pro-independence block,” he explains.

Prof Chin points out that despite the public pronouncement, it is quite clear that there is no Pakatan in Sarawak anymore.

He says all the parties in Pakatan will be using their own logos and manifestos: “They will be playing lip service as Sarawak Pakatan but in reality there is no more Pakatan in Sarawak.”

What are the big issues in the Sarawak polls which have been delayed for several months because of the Covid-19 pandemic? The two political analysts, who are both Sarawakians, give their take.

In his team’s fieldwork, says Prof Awang Azman, they found that there are three issues in the Sarawak polls.

Local issues such as in rural areas, insufficient basic infrastructure facilities like bridges and roads connecting from one place to another for the purpose of selling agricultural products and trade. In urban areas, the issues include poorly maintained drainage, road congestion, flash floods, business and employment opportunities and severe economic impact due to Covid-19.

“The issue of the rights of Sarawak, MA63 (Malaysia Agreement 1963), for example, are seen as less dominant than the issue of the people’s daily bread and butter which is in dire need of government stability,” he says.

Prof Chin observes that the opposition spent a lot of time talking about the timing of the election.

“People are saying why GPS did not wait for two more months. Why are you rushing it? Are you afraid of the young voters? Are you sort of setting up for a Covid-19 super spread event?” he says.

According to Prof Chin, the other main issue is the performance of Abang Johari since he became chief minister.

“Has he led a good government? Has he met the challenge of economic growth during Covid-19?

“The other big issue is autonomy and MA63 which I call Sarawak identity issue,” he says, adding that the issue of political personalities is important in his state.

So which party will win the Sarawak polls?

Prof Awang Azman predicts that GPS will win two-thirds majority based on the current sentiment. He says the strict Covid-19 SOPs will weaken the opposition campaign. For example, DAP’s strength is its big ceramah but they are now not allowed while non-Sarawakians will be barred from campaigning.

“If PSB and DAP win in their existing state seats it is already a good performance as the GPS machinery is bigger, stronger and spread out wider in the state. The quarrel between DAP and PKR gives a poor image to the voters,” he says.

“The more than three-cornered clashes have worsened the opposition’s chances of winning in style.”

(In the 2016 Sarawak polls, Barisan won 72 seats out of the 82 in the state assembly.)

Prof Awang Azman says in GPS, PBB is considered the strongest party; PRS, PDP and SUPP face more risks and challenges.

PRS, for example, recently lost their great leader, Tan Sri James Masing, who was party president.

Prof Awang Azman believes the Chinese acceptance of SUPP will be tested on whether they still want to support the party now as the late Sarawak chief minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem was respected by the community in the 2016 state polls.

Prof Awang Azman notes that PDP will face PSB in rural areas.

“If PSB doesn’t address with GPS parties its competition for seats it can win with GPS component parties it will cause internal division and PDP votes to decrease,” he says.

According to Prof Awang Azman, PSB is seen to depend on the weakness or split of the GPS at the last minute. For example, a mistake in the strategy of placing a candidate or an internal protest within GPS parties.

Prof Chin believes PKR can win at most two seats but it will likely be zero. DAP will still hang on to the Chinese seats but it might lose one or two incumbent seats, he adds.

“The real unknown is PSB. It depends on who you speak to. Some number crunchers say PSB is on track for six while others say three or four.

“GPS thinks they can sweep everything. The biggest component party which is gung ho is PBB which thinks it can walk away with the 47 seats without much problem.”

According to Prof Chin, among the GPS parties, PRS is the weakest.

“Everybody thinks they can kacau (disturb) PRS because James Masing recently passed away. There is a question mark on whether PRS can hang on to its seats. That is why within the GPS there will be some party which will try to disturb it,” he says.

Prof Chin contends that the biggest thing for ordinary Sarawakians is that they want the polls to be over with as soon as possible. He says the voters – especially the older ones – are really afraid of Covid-19 especially with reports that the Omicron variant has entered Malaysia.

“So because of this aspect the turnout will be low. My take is that if there is a low turnout, it will be an advantage to GPS. If high turnout, DAP and the other opposition parties will have a better chance,” he says.

It is safe to say that the Sarawak polls is for GPS to win. It is a matter of how many seats.