Defections raise Anwar election chances

By Anil Netto
Asia Times
August 24, 2012

PENANG – The defection of two key ruling coalition parliamentarians to the political opposition has shifted Malaysia’s pre-election equation and highlighted the importance of the crucial swing states of Sabah and Sarawak in what is expected to be a neck and neck contest.

Historically a “fixed deposit” of votes for the Barisan Nasional (BN), the coalition that has ruled the country consecutively since independence from colonial rule, Sabah and Sarawak are expected to play a prominent role in the coming general election pitting Prime Minister Najib Razak versus opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

BN won 140 of 222 federal parliament seats at the 2008 elections, a result that saw the Pakatan Rakyat opposition win control of five of 13 federal states. After the recent defections, BN holds 20 of 25 federal parliament seats allocated to Sabah and 29 of 31 in Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

If the recent defections signal a gathering trend away from BN, as some political analysts suggest, the two states have the potential to swing the next general election in favor of the opposition. The present parliamentary term expires in April 2013 and general elections must be held by October, although Najib has the prerogative of calling a snap election at any time.

Opposition leaders recognize that they cannot win federal power without making sharp inroads in the BN’s Sabah and Sarawak strongholds, as well as in Johor and Pahang on the peninsula. There are certain indications, including not least the recent parliamentary defections, that Pakatan Rakyat may be chipping away at the BN’s historical grip on these states.

One of the two Sabah parliamentarians who crossed over recently was reported as saying in an opposition party paper that three more lawmakers may follow suit. Leveraging into rising grassroot sentiments against peninsula-based parties, Pakatan Rakyat leaders have made efforts to cultivate local Sabah-based politicians.

Of the 20 federal parliament seats in Sabah now held by BN, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the coalition’s dominant party, holds 12, with the remainder controlled by BN component parties representing other indigenous and ethnic groups.

Issues that could swing votes in the two states include a large influx of migrants from neighboring countries that has bred resentment among locals, relatively high poverty rates despite Sabah’s rich oil resources, and the rising belief that the country needs a viable two-party system to check official corruption and abuse of power.

Opposition leader Anwar seems eager to exploit the recent defections to spur Pakatan Rakyat’s bid to win the crucial swing states at the next elections and demoralize BN supporters.

An earlier Anwar-led attempt to lure enough parliamentary defections to topple BN in the aftermath of the 2008 polls ultimately failed and raised questions about the credibility of his earlier claims to have sufficient numbers to take power. With the lost political momentum, BN managed through legal maneuvers to seize back control of one of the opposition won states.

Loose loyalties

This time, however, Anwar is playing his cards closer to his chest. His political supporters have cautioned him about party hoppers whose loyalties may be suspect over the long run. Party stalwarts fear defectors could act as UMNO Trojan horses, who would hop back to BN either during the election campaign period or soon after they had won seats on a Pakatan Rakyat ticket. The recent defections in Sabah, others argue, could be interpreted as a betrayal of the Sabah people’s mandate at the last polls.

BN is not taking the threat lightly, however. Prime Minister Najib, realizing the widespread resentment among many Sabahans over a recent influx of immigrants, including from the neighboring Philippines, has moved to ward off further defections of lawmakers through the announcement of the formation of a royal commission of inquiry to probe the problem.

Allegations of widespread and systematic granting of citizenship and identify cards (ICs) to immigrants surfaced in the early 1990s, soon after UMNO’s entry into Sabah mainstream politics. The irregular citizenship allowances were later dubbed “Project IC” or “Project M” by the opposition, as they occurred under the administration of then premier Mahathir Mohamad. The suspicion at the time was that these immigrants would vote overwhelmingly in favor of the BN, cementing its electoral hold over the state.

Entrenched poverty is another long lingering sore point. Despite its substantial oil wealth, Sabah’s rural poverty rate stands out compared with other states in the federation. Other bumiputera, indigenous groups apart from ethnic Malays situated mainly in Sabah and Sarawak, account for about half of Malaysia’s poor even though they make up only 11% of the national population.

“The incidence of poverty among other bumiputera increased from 14% in 2007 to 17% in 2009, and their contribution to total poor households rose from 41% to 51%. Also in 2009, the intensity of poverty was most visible among other bumiputera,” noted a Millennium Development Goals report in 2010.

Some Sabah and Sarawak politicians hope the emergence of a viable two-party political system will allow them to play a more decisive role in ensuring their states’ grievances are addressed at the federal level. One of the key focal points for Sabah and Sarawak is the question of oil royalties, fixed by the BN-led government at a meager 5% of petroleum revenues.

Opposition politicians like Anwar have indicated that if they win federal power, Pakatan Rakyat would raise the royalty to 20%. The campaign pledge nods towards larger unresolved issues of state autonomy and decentralization, aspirations in Sabah and Sarawak that the BN-led government has never seriously considered.

Certain BN politicians have questioned the economics of Anwar’s royalty pledge for Sabah and Sarawak.

“My view is if Anwar intends to stick to his promise, he has no choice but to eventually cut allocations meant for the non-oil producing states,” wrote Abdul Rahman Dahlan, a BN parliamentarian from Sabah. “Of course, the other alternative is to cut allocations to critical sectors like education, rural infrastructure, health and security across the board, which is equally a disastrous scenario.”

BN leaders, meanwhile, are apparently rethinking their electoral strategy for the two swing states, seen in policy flip-flops seemingly aimed at stemming further parliamentary defections in the run-up to the polls.

Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud said on Monday that his state would soon discuss with the federal government the need to review the 5% oil royalty rate. A day later, Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman said a new petroleum sharing formula is “negotiable” after earlier this month describing Pakatan Rakyat’s 20% pledge as “illogical.”

  1. #1 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Saturday, 25 August 2012 - 2:37 pm

    Pakatan to cut allocations to non-oil states? Yeah, maybe. But first to go would surely be umno’s astronomical-size appetite for corruption. And and of course those super grand but economically pointless mega billion dollar umno projects. These measures could go quite far to make up for the 20% oil revenue given to sabah etc.

    So I am not worried there. Anyway, I look forward to a change of government. I want the present umno gobermen booted out no matter what during GE13.

  2. #2 by mauriyaII on Saturday, 25 August 2012 - 3:02 pm

    Nobody can deny the fact that Sabah and Sarawak has been neglected from the time Malaysia was born. The UMNO/BN govrnment just used the wealth of these states for the development of Peninsular Malaysia. To UMNO/BN, the two states were its fixed deposit or vote banks to be used shamelessly during elections.

    Abject poverty, especially among the bumiputras in these two states, is appalling. The central government under UMNO/BN did not see it fit to use the revenue from the resources of these two states to develop them. Infrastructure and basic amenities are non-existent in most parts of Sabah and Sarawak.

    What happened to the revenues accrued from the exploitation of oil and timber in these two states?
    That revenue was not used for the development of Sabah/Sarawak. The colonial mindset of the Central Government is to be blamed. The Central Government just exploited these two states to the maximum with the tacit approval of the MPs from these two states or these MPs had no say in the way these states were administered.

    Now coming to the two BN politicians who chose to leave UMNO/Bn to be Pakatan Rakyat friendly, nobody can read their mind as to their action. They could be genuinely fed up with UMNO/BN to form their own party to fight for Sabah OR they could be trojans set up by their masters.

    In any case if Anwar is going to field candidates approved by these MPs without consulting those who have supported Pakatan Rakyat, he is in trouble.

    Malaysian politics is well known for frogs. When a few million ringgit and other goodies are offered by UMNO/BN, ther are unscrupulous and unethical scoundrels ready to jump at the chance to become instant millionaires and datuks.

    Most of these frogs incidentally were from UMNO. They have the UMNO genes in them. It is very difficult or almost impossible to wean these frogs from doing what comes naturally to them.

    If those two exUMNO/BN fellows are the exception and if more follow their footsteps, Pakatan Rakyat stands a good chance to neutralize the power of UMNO/BN in Sabah.

    To remove UMNO/BN from Sabah/Sarawak, Pakatan Rakyat leaders like Anwar SHOULD NOT ANTAGONIZE the local political leaders who want a change in government.

    Pakatan Rakyat can never challenge the supermacy of UMNO/BN’s money politics but they can be vanquished if PR plays it cards well by exposing all the rot in UMNO/BN governance of Sabah/Sarawak and promising them a NEW ERA where their rights would be PARAMOUNT.

  3. #3 by yhsiew on Saturday, 25 August 2012 - 5:36 pm

    ///if Anwar intends to stick to his promise, he has no choice but to eventually cut allocations meant for the non-oil producing states…///

    That is untrue. Anwar still has the option to downsize the civil service sector and scale down subsidies given to private electricity producers.

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