KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 7 — As the fledgling Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) coalition heads into the 12th Sarawak election, all eyes are keeping a close watch on how its four component parties will fare this time without the using the Barisan Nasional (BN) brand name to prop them up.
With 82 state seats at stake, how will the alliance of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), Parti Demokratik Progresif (PDP), and Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) do on their own turf under the new GPS identity?
Malay Mail spoke to several political analysts, including those based in Sarawak, and most believe the fledgling GPS coalition formed in the ashes of the 2018 general election will do better after casting off its association with the decades-old BN brand that was and still is anchored by Umno.
“I did some research here [in Sarawak] with 10,000 respondents from the southern end to the northern end of the state from various ethnic groups. I asked the question, do you want Umno to come to Sarawak? The findings showed that 92 per cent said no.
“Even though this research was done seven years ago, I strongly believe that the percentage is the same or higher than the 92 per cent now,” said Jeniri Amir, a senior fellow with the National Council of Professors.
Umno is the dominant party and backbone of the BN coalition, and is virtually synonymous with BN.
Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, who is also the BN number two, said that GPS would not need outside help in the 12th Sarawak state election because the coalition's leaders are more than capable of securing the mandate of Sarawakians.
Jeniri said that GPS’ strong support comes from the work done by its chairman and PBB president Tan Sri Abang Johari Openg. The professor said the incumbent chief minister’s efforts in providing infrastructure, economic and social development, welfare and communications in the state are well recognised by the locals.
Professor Neilson Ilan Mersat from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak is of the view that GPS is “quite strong” and said any help that BN gives will be considered a “bonus” as GPS parties are no longer part of the BN coalition.
He suggested that GPS would do well enough on its own in the Sarawak state election.
Instead, he said that involving BN could hurt the Sarawak-based coalition.
“BN's brand is slowly fading. What is happening among BN parties in the peninsula does not augur well for its role in the coming election. But if BN decides to help it will be a bonus. If not, should be OK for GPS.
“GPS seems to be doing well and their political marketing of sorts covers every nook and cranny of the state of Sarawak. GPS is already quite well known in the rural areas too,” he told Malay Mail.
When asked if GPS could win more seats or win seats with bigger majorities if BN stepped in to help, Neilson suggested that this could backfire.
“Not sure about this for you never know that BN might be a liability to GPS. BN's impact on Sarawak voters will not be as great as it used to be. Support from BN is just like water under the bridge for the people in Sarawak.
“Honestly, BN should not come. BN's image was dented after the party lost in 2018 and on the other hand GPS leaders have been working quite hard in projecting the image of GPS as a Sarawak-based coalition,” he added.
“BN's image was well tarnished by all sorts of sandals. All Sarawakians know that,” he said.
Stating that Sarawakians prefer GPS over BN, he also agreed that racial and religious issues in BN’s politics in peninsular Malaysia would also be a deterrent in Sarawak which remains harmonious.
“That could be one of the factors as GPS is a multiracial party and tries to avoid using the racial card,” he said.
When asked why GPS is doing well in Sarawak, he noted that another factor would be Abang Johari who succeeded the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem as the state’s chief minister in January 2017.
“The current chief minister continues the legacy of Tok Nan which was accepted by most Sarawakians in the 2016 elections,” he said, referring to Adenan by his local moniker.
Adenan had been chief minister for three years prior to his death in January 2017.
Senior Fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Oi Eh Sun also shared the same view that GPS would be stronger without the involvement of its peninsula-based allies.
Like Neilson, Oh said that the BN’s involvement might have an adverse effect on the votes.
“BN’s purported partnership with GPS in Sarawak elections would scare away many Sarawak voters as it foreshadows Malayan ruling parties’ entry into Sarawak which would irk many Sarawakians,” he said, using the colonial term to refer to peninsular Malaysia regularly used by those in Borneo.
Oh added that GPS’ influence in the rural and remote constituencies in Sarawak is so strong that many voters feel that they will have no access to the modern world if they don’t continue to cast their ballots for the parties that make up the coalition.
“If you don’t vote GPS, therefore your kawasan will have no development. And when I say no development, I don’t only mean roads — we mean like there will be no access by speedboats into your longhouse or if there are speedboats, there is no diesel for you to run the speedboats,” he said, referring to the main mode of transport in Sarawak’s deep interiors.
“Not to mention clean water or various other food stuffs and so on. So you are in a sense totally encapsulated by the GPS politico-social economic machinery, there’s nowhere to run for you,” he said.
He said that the chances of the Opposition parties breaking into these rural areas are extremely limited because of that.
He gave the example of Ba’ Kelalan assemblyman Baru Bian as an extremely rare case of this.
“There are rare exceptions with Baru Bian winning his constituency but those are exceptions and primarily because of the power of the Evangelical Christians there, but other than that, it is very, very difficult,” he said, referring to the politician who had won the rural state seat Ba Kelalan twice in 2011 and 2016 after two previous unsuccessful attempts.
Oh however said that this was different in more urban areas and that this was why state Opposition parties DAP and PKR are able to "make some inroads" into these constituencies.
Just before the state legislative assembly dissolved last month, GPS still controlled 67 seats or more than a two-thirds majority compared to the 72 seats it won when the four component parties were still a part of the BN back in the 2016 state election. This was due in part to defections.
Polling day for the Sarawak state election is on December 18. Early voting is on December 14.