Defections raise Anwar election
chances By Anil Netto
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
BN won 140 of 222 federal
parliament seats at the 2008 elections, a result
that saw the Pakatan Rakyat opposition win control
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
"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."
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.
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."
Anil Netto is a Penang-based
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