Three things we learnt about: The Kimanis parliamentary by-election

Barisan Nasional candidate for the Kimanis by-election Datuk Mohamad Alamin casts his ballot at Sekolah Kebangsaan Our Lady of Fatima (M) in Kelatuan January 18, 2020. — Bernama pic
Barisan Nasional candidate for the Kimanis by-election Datuk Mohamad Alamin casts his ballot at Sekolah Kebangsaan Our Lady of Fatima (M) in Kelatuan January 18, 2020. — Bernama pic

BEAUFORT, Jan 19 — In the straight fight between Warisan’s 66-year-old candidate Datuk Karim Bujang and Umno’s 48-year-old Datuk Mohamad Alamin, pundits said it would be unpredictable and a close race from the start as both men had their pros and cons, with the common factor being they had equally lost in Election 2018.

Throughout the two-week campaign and even on polling day, analysts and observers maintained their 50-50 forecast, as both parties claimed to have the people’s support.

Umno’s strategy seemed focused on one message to stir up local sentiment and concern on illegal immigrants through the Sabah Temporary Pass, better known by its Malay initials of PSS.

Warisan, led by Chief Minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, was more about reaching out to the different communities on a personal level.

In a constituency with a mostly Muslim Brunei ethnic community, it would be easy to just win them over, but anticipating the minority non-Muslims as kingmakers, focus eventually shifted to the 8,000-strong community a few days into the campaign.

In the end, Barisan Nasional’s (BN) Umno proved that its identity crisis and near decimation in the last general election was not enough to hold them down. And so, they kept the federal seat, which they have held since 2004.

Here are three takeaways from the Kimanis by election:

1. The Sabah Temporary Pass narrative hit the right button

The BN made the foreigner documentation system the most hotly debated issue of this by-election by coming at it from all directions, forcing the state Warisan government and Pakatan Harapan (PH) federal government on the defence.

Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s appearance on the campaign trail to explain the PSS did little to reassure Sabahans that their home state would not face a flood of foreigners made citizens overnight.

What is clear at this stage is that Sabahans, across all demographics, do not trust the government to deal with immigrants transparently and effectively.

Despite constant reiteration that the document was a standardising exercise only for existing foreigners, it is likely that foreigner numbers will eventually grow and there is yet a solution to the illegal immigrant problem.

Shafie and the PH government may have to consider reviewing the exercise or at least manage the roll-out in a way that can appease Sabahans.

The PSS, the lack of development and job opportunities since Warisan and PH took government and the lack of promised progress with reinstating Sabah’s rights under the Malaysia Agreement 1963 appeared to resound with voters here.

But national issues also played a role. The price of fuel has increased the cost of living significantly and many are blaming the federal government for the delay in the completion of the Pan Borneo Highway.

Sabahans knew full well that voting in the Opposition would mean no direct channel to development funds, but took a risk in order to send the message that the ruling coalition needs to do better.

2. Revival on the cards for Sabah Umno

Many had written off Umno in Sabah after the mass exodus of seven MPs and 16 assemblymen in December 2018, seven months after BN lost the general election.

The nationalist party that had once been the largest political party boasting three million members was left with only one MP and one assemblyman when the by-election was called.

The win in Kimanis, right after Umno snatched back the Tanjung Piai parliamentary seat in Johor last year, has given the Malay party a bigger morale boost, set up a possible revival and opened the door for a future Opposition bloc that could stand a real chance at reclaiming Sabah and federal power in the next general election due by 2023.

Former Kimanis MP Datuk Anifah Aman, who has occupied the seat since 2004, and before that when it was called Beaufort in 1999, is also seen as a key supporter that helped to swing the Muslim Bumiputera vote back to BN.

Anifah, brother to former Sabah chief minister Tan Sri Musa Aman, is said to have a high approval rating with local voters and was credited by Alamin, Sabah Umno chairman Datuk Bung Moktar Radin and Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi for Umno’s victory in another parliamentary seat for the Opposition.

In political patronage culture, power attracts supporters, and the party is confident that those who switched over to Warisan and PPBM will eventually return to Umno.

3. BN’s experienced machinery

It became apparent that the BN party election machinery was more experienced to the fledgling Warisan from the get-go in the Kimanis by-election.

The publicity blitz for its events, which included “live” streaming of their events on Facebook, Umno showed its prowess in handling the logistics and streamlining the schedules of their leaders to campaign in person here, including “bossku” Datuk Seri Najib Razak who flew over from the peninsula three times in the two-week campaign period to stump for their candidate.

The ceramah were well organised and well-attended and the messages were clear, if a little racially aggressive for the typically laidback Sabahans.

In contrast, Shafie was very much the sole face of the Warisan campaign, which tried to keep it local and personal in their messaging and campaigning. Events were also well-attended but not as numerous or well-publicised compared to the Opposition’s.

Shafie’s famed down-to-earth persona usually goes a long way but in this constituency, the familiarity of BN was hard to break.

Few leaders from the national PH government came — PPBM president Muhyiddin, his deputy Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, his deputy Datuk Seri Azmin Ali and several others — but they were rarely seen campaigning together with Warisan.

The local PPBM chapter was seen in full force on nomination day, but was far less conspicuous later on. This probably hurt Warisan, judging from their performance in the Membakut state constituency where Datuk Ariffin Arif is assemblyman.

Local observers say it might be beneficial for the PH government to be seen as working hand in hand with Warisan to garner the people’s confidence.

“Maybe their machinery on-the-ground was overconfident in their approval rating and got their numbers wrong. Maybe they coasted, knowing that being in the government position put them at an advantage. Perhaps they did not take into account the fence-sitters. Whatever they missed, it went wrong fast and they could not see it before it became too late,” said an observer.

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