Already a crowded space, Sabah’s Opposition is close to bursting with new and proposed local-based parties about to enter the arena.
They are diverse, but they share — or at least profess to share — two common points: the Sabah for Sabahan platform and a desire to unseat the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
While the first point is essentially freeform, the second is significantly more complex. They will need not only to work with one another — which history has shown to be an elusive goal — but also with the outsider that is Pakatan Harapan.
At the moment, the most established of the homegrown are the United Sabah Alliance (USA) headed by Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan of Sabah Reform Party, Datuk Wilfred Bumburing of Parti Cinta Sabah, and Datuk Yong Teck Lee of Sabah Progressive Party.
Soon, they will be joined by former Umno president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal who will rebrand a local party, and Datuk Lajim Ukim, formerly of Umno and PKR, who will establish a new one.
All parties have indicated a willingness to work with the others on the “local platform”, with Lajim saying it was easier to negotiate with a Sabah-based party compared to national ones, though the reality of this has still to be tested.
Kitingan, a former PKR vice president, said the most logical approach would be to carve up Sabah and distribute this based on each party’s apparent strength.
“Shafie would take the east coast — Tawau, Lahad Datu, Semporna; Lajim’s stronghold is the west coast — Beaufort, Sipitang, Kimanis, Putatan and Labuan,” said Kitingan.
He said his own focus would be Keningau, Pensiangan, Tenom and Ranau; Bumburing could be strong in Tuaran, Penampang, Kota Marudu; and Yong in the urban areas of Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan and Sepanggar.
“Something like that. The rest can be shared,” he said, adding that talks were ongoing.
He declined to comment, however, when asked where the Pakatan Harapan parties of PKR, DAP and Amanah would fit in, despite the fact that the first two were the best Opposition performers in the last election.
While the three are viewed as outsiders, their cooperation is essential to avoid the multi-cornered fights that will split the Opposition vote to BN’s customary benefit.
Analysts are also warning that the populist appeal of the local platform can only go so far, and will not be sustainable if those riding the wave cannot offer substantive reforms or a more diverse agenda.
“Sabah-based issues alone will not be enough to secure support from Sabahans. Local-based parties must not think that they can win support just by raising local sentiments alone.
“I think it is not the ‘political platform’ that is the main issue here but leadership and policy alternatives,” said Dr Arnold Puyok, senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s Faculty of Social Sciences.
Puyok pointed out that in Election 2013, national-based parties far outperformed local parties, with PKR and DAP winning seven and four seats, respectively; STAR only won one in the state.
He was also reserved about Shafie’s appeal outside his stronghold of Semporna; with the exception of Darrell Leiking who quit as PKR vice president to join the former Umno leader, there have been no others who may help spread his influence afar.
Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said he doubted the local Sabah parties stood any chance of winning the next general election beyond the top leaders retaining their seats.
He also predicted that DAP would keep most of its seats despite the exit of seven state leaders.
The pessimistic view is supported by the underlying sentiments among the parties despite the apparent welcome each is offering the others.
Kitingan, for instance, couched his greeting to Lajim with guarded suspicion.
“Good for him. Welcome to the Sabahan struggle. Now they realise it but why the need to set up another political party? What is his agenda? Why take so long to realise? If their leaving PKR has their president’s blessing, is there a hidden agenda?
“If sincere, they should just join forces with USA,” he told Malay Mail Online.
And this was without considering the acrimony that will remain in PKR and DAP over the actions of its former leaders here who abandoned them for the new local bandwagon.
The lingering resentment was displayed most apparently by state DAP chairman Stephen Wong, who — while professing a willingness to collaborate with the Johnny-come-latelies — continued to take pot-shots at former partymate Junz Wong.
“We have had talks with Shafie. He seems open to it. But if Junz continues to try to tear down DAP, then it will jeopardise talks,” said Stephen.
Sarawak DAP secretary Chan Foong Hin, who replaced Junz in the position, had last year deemed negotiations with local parties “hopeless”, but was now sanguine about the chances, explaining that experience has taught all that the infighting was to no-one’s gain aside from BN.
But he foresaw that roadblocks will come both from within Sabah and across the South China Sea.
“It is too early to say. Any seat consensus between Pakatan and local parties will have to be approved within the Pakatan alliance first. If we cannot settle that, it will be even harder to settle with others,” said Chan.
PKR’s position here is again tenuous following the departure of Lajim and other leaders, but it is a situation the party has experienced previously when Kitingan left.
Currently, the party has effectively lost five of the seven seats it won in the last election, leaving only Api Api assemblyman Christina Liew, who is expected to take over from Lajim, and Inanam assemblyman Dr Roland Chia.
PKR’s senior leader Datuk Saifuddin Nasution is expected to come to Kota Kinabalu soon to work through issues and prepare the alliance for the next election due by 2018.
What is certain is that despite the grand motions and unified voice to fight for autonomy, the Opposition parties’ hopes of deposing BN will be futile if they cannot now achieve the unity that they have never managed before.