KIMANIS, Jan 15 — The January 18 by-election could be the “mother of all by-elections” for Pakatan Harapan ally Parti Warisan Sabah and Barisan Nasional, according to local observers.
Sabah political analyst Arnold Puyok said the poll be a litmus test for both Warisan and Umno as the former must prove its mettle in both the state and national arena while the latter needs to prove its relevance after the mass exodus at the end of 2018.
“The by-election will gauge the people’s feelings and support towards the PH-Warisan-Upko-led government. If Warisan wins, it will give Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal a major boost to lead Sabah until GE15. If Shafie can end the BN’s winning streak, he will have the leverage to strengthen Warisan’s control over local politics,” said Puyok.
This was imperative given BN’s unexpected trouncing of PH in last year’s Tanjung PIai by-election, but Shafie has proven himself before during the Sandakan by election where his presence helped DAP win by a landslide.
A win would solidify his party’s position as well as give him leverage when negotiating with the federal government on ongoing reinstatement of Sabah’s rights in the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63).
“Umno needs to win this by-election too. Its victory will open the possibility for the party to reemerge as a strong alternative to the PH-Warisan-Upko coalition. Sabah Umno particularly has to prove that it is still a relevant party in Sabah and this by-election is a golden opportunity for Umno to discard the perception that it is a party stuck in a time warp,” Puyok said in a statement.
In December 2018, Umno was hard hit when all but two of its state assemblymen and MPs quit the party, with most joining rival Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia eventually.
The party had to rebuild and rebrand itself, even asking for autonomy from its central leadership in order to create distance from the conservative PAS which generally does not have a big following in Sabah.
Calling it a “do or die mission”, Puyok said Warisan’s victory lies in how it resolves development issues and the people’s perception of the Sabah temporary pass (PSS) which has been the crux of the opposition’s campaign.
Warisan cannot avoid PSS becoming an issue
“No matter how hard Warisan is trying to allay public fears over the PSS, the sentiment is that a substantial number of Sabahans are not convinced that it is an effective strategy to solve the problems of illegals in Sabah. It appears that people have more doubts now despite the explanation by Warisan leaders.
“The PSS is like MA63. It has become a polemic as well as an emotive issue that can be easily exploited to win votes. Warisan is taking a huge risk in introducing the PSS as its effectiveness can only be seen when it is fully implemented. Thus without an effective communication strategy and a long-term plan to address the issue of illegals, the PSS will continue to be Warisan’s weak point,” said Puyok.
Anthropologist and Opposition member Paul Porodong agreed that despite their assurances, the Warisan government would not be able to shrug the issue away at this point.
“It’s not that people are just rejecting the PSS, its also because of the way the government is handling it that seemingly does not favour locals at all. People are disturbed and they know it. They have spent some 90 per cent of their campaigning time defending the PSS,” he said when speaking to Malay Mail.
Both analysts also agree that the PSS has become the common factor for the opposition and united them in their rhetoric.
“One vote for Warisan is a vote for the PSS” has been their slogan and the many billboards put up along the west coast highway attacks their approach.
At an anti-PSS protest today, Gabungan Bersatu Sabah (GBS) — PBS, STAR and SAPP joined forces with Umno for this rallying cry that was made by youths and the older generation alike.
“This is an interesting partnership — one without a structured platform but a common issue as a basis for a strategic cooperation,” said Puyok.
When not harping on the PSS, the remaining arguments is on development, or rather, lack thereof in this town that is not quite a two hour drive from the state capital.
For Warisan, it is a no-brainer now that they are in the government.
“Warisan campaigners urge the voters to vote for Warisan for the sake of development — the same strategy used by BN before. However, development as an issue is hard to sell nowadays especially if it is sold by those who failed to deliver when they were in power but now seeking to be reelected,” said Puyok.
The main gripes are drainage systems that cause floods every rainy season, and the lack of street lights, asphalt roads and general growth in the area.
Puyok said that ethnic leanings also play a role, albeit a different kind here in Kimanis.
“It is not always as straightforward as in Peninsular Malaysia. Ethnicity is often overshadowed by regional sentiment, cultural and religious similarities and family ties. So, how the Brunei Malay, the Kadazandusun and the Chinese voters vote will not solely be determined by ethno-religious sentiment alone,” he said.
Analysts agree that the government of the day always has the advantage because it controls access to state resources and machinery, and a vote for the opposition will not affect that outcome.
“But as GE14 shows, patronage politics and a well-oiled campaign machinery are no longer effective weapons to galvanise support. Sabahans have the habit of punishing their leaders at the polls. It is not impossible for the Kimanis voters to go against the tide.
“But the Kimanis by-election is enough to measure the feelings of the electorates towards the performance of the government of the day and its elected leaders,” said Puyok.