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ATimes: Hope springs both ways in Sabah
By Anil Netto

16/11/2001 3:35 pm Fri

November 16, 2001


Hope springs both ways in Sabah

By Anil Netto

PENANG - Malaysian politics has taken a new twist with Tuesday's announcement by an opposition party in Sabah state in northeastern Borneo that it wants to rejoin the ruling coalition after an 11-year stint outside.

The decision by the indigenous Christian-based Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) or United Sabah Party has bolstered morale in the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But at the same time, there could be a silver lining in the long term for Malaysia's beleaguered opposition alliance.

The PBS's decision came on the heels of inaugural party elections held last weekend by another opposition party, Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party), led by Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim. Keadilan and its opposition partners may now seek to fill the opposition vacuum in Sabah left by the PBS.

The crossover by the PBS, which has only three members in the federal parliament, may have larger implications. The ruling coalition has become increasingly reliant on non-Muslim support after a split in the Malay-Muslim vote in the peninsula after Anwar's ouster, assault and jailing in 1998. The PBS's return may support the perception of increased non-Muslim participation in the ruling coalition.

The PBS's decision to extricate itself from political limbo-land and rejoin the ruling coalition was probably made after tough backroom discussions. The party had never committed itself to the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front), the reformasi era opposition alliance, and was doomed to fight a losing battle against the Barisan Nasional.

The PBS's return makes strategic sense for the ruling coalition too. Sabah and Sarawak together contribute 25 percent of the federal parliament seats and represent a solid bastion of support for the ruling coalition. If Mahathir can bank on most of the parliamentary seats in these two states, then he needs to win little more than one in three seats on the peninsula to secure a simple federal majority in the next general election due by 2004.

Opposition parties have found the going tough in northern Borneo. Indigenous groups in Sabah and Sarawak - large numbers of whom are non-Muslim - tend to be more parochial and less concerned about what happens in Kuala Lumpur. Relatively isolated from the reformasi movement on the peninsula, voters in these two states are more easily enticed by the "politics of development" - the practice of attracting voters with "development projects" just before elections. Incumbent parties, with their access to patronage, development funds and the media, have a heavy advantage over opposition parties - which the PBS found out to its cost.

The PBS itself has had a checkered history. Formed in 1985, it shocked pundits when it wrested power in Sabah from the Barisan Nasional in state elections held that year. Confronted by a less-than-friendly Barisan Nasional government in Kuala Lumpur, the PBS then applied to join the coalition, but it did not get an immediate response. In May 1986, amid uncertain conditions, it called snap elections, improving its haul of seats to 34 of the 47 it contested. A month later, it was finally admitted into the Barisan Nasional fold.

But the PBS stunned observers on the eve of the general election in 1990 when it decided to defect to an opposition front, anchored by a United Malay National Organization (UMNO) breakaway faction led by Mahathir's then arch-rival, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. Furious ruling-coalition leaders called it a "stab in the back". But the opposition coalition failed to dislodge the Barisan Nasional. In the 1994 state election, the PBS squeezed through with a slim majority but its government soon crumbled after a spate of defections to the Barisan Nasional in suspicious circumstances. The Barisan Nasional then took over Sabah, thrusting the PBS to opposition ranks.

Mahathir's coalition held onto Sabah in 1999, with UMNO tightening its grip. Though the PBS won 17 seats that year, there were more defections: eight PBS assembly members hopped over to the Barisan Nasional. This history of defections has damaged the credibility of the PBS and undermined public support for it.

Though the PBS is multi-ethnic, its president, Joseph Pairin Kitingan, is regarded as the paramount leader of the Kadazandusuns, the main ethnic group comprising 18 percent of the Sabah population. The party probably realized its days were numbered after constituency boundaries were redrawn in the mid-1990s to slash the number of ethnic Kadazandusun-majority constituencies. Apart from this, there were complaints that illegal immigrants were being allowed to vote.

The PBS's best bet, its leaders must have felt, would be to rejoin the Barisan Nasional coalition's ranks and wait for its turn to lead the state government. The Barisan Nasional has rotated the chief minister's post in turn among the three main ethnic groups in the state. Whoever is picked as chief minister only serves two years before handing over to another coalition partner. Such a system, however, creates some confusion as state elections are held every five years - before a complete rotation cycle of three different chief ministers can be completed.

It's not all bad news for the opposition alliance. For one, the PBS's departure will mean the Barisan Alternatif will have to fill the vacuum in opposition ranks in Sabah. If it is to draw the non-Muslims in Sabah and Sarawak, the alliance will also be forced to open up and prove its multi-ethnic and multi-religious credentials. It will need to spruce up its image and tone down its Islamic-state agenda if it wants to improve its election showing.

That may be a distinct possibility. Keadilan delegates and Wan Azizah herself spoke repeatedly of struggling for a civil society based on human rights, justice and good governance at their party assembly last weekend. The largely Malay-based Keadilan is also likely to speed up its merger plans with the tiny left-leaning multi-ethnic Parti Rakyat Malaysia (Malaysian People's Party) to enhance the alliance's multi-ethnic image.

The PBS's departure will also mean less wrangling among the opposition in seat allocations for Sabah to ensure one-to-one contests with the ruling coalition. With the PBS out of the picture, opposition negotiations need now be only between the multi-ethnic but Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Keadilan, thus ensuring more straight fights with the ruling coalition.

Although the DAP had earlier left the Barisan Alternatif, it is likely to maintain close links to the opposition alliance. Both the DAP and Keadilan can now go all-out to enter Sabah without having to worry about encroaching into PBS territory. Neither will the opposition alliance have to worry so much about post-election defections to the ruling coalition.

The PBS crossover may have been for self-preservation; it has also further tilted the political equation in favor of the ruling coalition. But the opposition alliance could even the scales a little in the longer term, especially if the crossover prompts it to enhance its own multi-ethnic and multi-religious face.