Wednesday, October 5

Analysts see GPS eyeing more concessions after nativist drive gives coalition record Sarawak polls victory

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Abang Johari (centre) and other GPS leaders celebrate after winning the Sarawak state election on Dec 18, 2021. ― Photo by Yusof Mat Isa/Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR (Dec 20): Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) is poised to leverage Saturday’s unprecedented polls victory for concessions that may include more autonomy, political analysts suggested.

The coalition won 76 out of the 82 state legislative assembly seats to give the state’s ruling parties their biggest win in five decades, a thumping majority that pundits believe reaffirmed earlier warnings about growing rejection of peninsula influence in the Borneo state.

Jeniri Amir, a Sarawak-based political analyst, noted that GPS had won on the back of a nativist “Sarawak First” platform, which he felt reflected the aspirations of a majority of Sarawakian voters, although he stressed that several other factors — like a divided and ideologically incoherent Opposition — still played a major contributing role to the coalition’s triumph.

“It shows that the fight was based on Sarawak nationalism fighting for ‘Sarawak First’ in consonance with the GPS’ slogan of ‘Sarawak for all, all for Sarawak’. I think it captured the political imagination and aspiration of the voters of Sarawak,” he said.

“If they keep on playing the state nationalism card … that would be more (problematic). The federal government has to take note of Sarawak rights and autonomy and not take it for granted.

“What the state’s people want is fair treatment from the federal government and to heed the signal.”

Just four days before the polls, Parliament’s Dewan Rakyat unanimously passed amendments to the Federal Constitution that finally gave recognition to the Malaysian Agreement 1963, effectively elevating Sarawak and Sabah status as equal to the Federation of Malay states.

Jeniri said the amendments’ passage, a long-standing demand, could have significantly altered the course of the race and tilted it in favour of GPS.

GPS currently provides 19 MPs for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s razor-thin four-seat majority in Parliament.

Analysts believe the coalition led by Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Sarawak could build on the momentum to raise its share of Sarawak’s 31 parliamentary seats in the next election, rumoured to be planned for as early as March next year.

This puts the Sarawak parties in a strong position to negotiate for greater federal representation, which in turn allows them to consolidate and protect their own interests in the state — whether that would pan out well for the average Sarawakian remains to be seen.

“This resounding victory solidifies their already strong position as a political bloc to be reckoned with, so any federal ruling coalition in the future (and) GPS must almost inevitably be included as they would sweep a whopping number of federal seats in Sarawak,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

“This means either side of the political divide would need to woo GPS.”

GPS is currently aligned with the Ismail Sabri-led administration. It officially left Barisan Nasional in 2018 after the coalition was ousted in the 14th general election, and the coalition’s head, PBB’s Tan Sri Abang Johari Openg, had said GPS would remain independent.

After the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration in 2020, the coalition was courted by both PH and Perikatan Nasional (PN), but eventually sided with the government led by Bersatu’s Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

Oh noted that PH is unlikely to get GPS into its fold since the coalition’s leaders had vowed never to work with DAP, one of three component parties that form PH.

For the Opposition, the humiliating defeat in Sarawak was likely the culmination of the growing frustration voters feel with parties that have been unable to reconcile their differences and work together, a sentiment also reflected in the Melaka state polls where PH was decimated by BN.

PH won only two seats in Saturday’s polls, with both being won by DAP.

“The Opposition needed to be united and stop bickering among themselves and this gave an advantage to GPS,” Jeniri said.

“They each had their own manifesto with different slogans and political narratives, ideologies and agendas. That confused the people,” he added.

Oh believes PH’s defeat both in the Melaka and Sarawak polls, underpinned by their disunity and an outdated campaign, could be the bellwether to how the major Opposition coalition would perform in the 15th general election.

“There needs to be a serious soul-searching for new visions and narratives in order to convince the voters to once again vote for them because if this trend continues I think it would be very difficult for PH not only to be a ruling coalition but to remain relevant,” he said.

PH’s crushing loss effectively turned a nascent Parti Sarawak Bersatu into the largest Opposition party in the state. Just five years old, the party won four seats, two more than PH.

Still, its president Datuk Seri Wong Soon Koh told reporters on Saturday that his party had suffered a humiliating defeat. PSB contested 70 seats.

And yet some analysts believe PSB’s marginal gain could carry a far more significant meaning than what the numbers suggest.

James Chin, University of Tasmania’s director of Asia Institute, said PSB, despite being the minnows, outperformed a more experienced PH, a result that could signal a growing sense of Sarawak nationalism among the state’s voters.

“This is a reaffirmation that Sarawak is shut for outsiders. Basically Sarawak is for Sarawakians and outsiders have no role to play,” he said. — Malay Mail