Sarawak’s most powerful man has put his opponents on the defensive by announcing his retirement on the same day that he announced that the State Legislative Assembly would be dissolved to make way for state polls.
TAN Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud has burst the bubble of his political opponents in the coming Sarawak election.
The Chief Minister’s announcement that he would retire after the state polls is bound to deflate the campaign of the Opposition parties, which have targeted him and his family as their No. 1 campaign issue.
“He has pulled the rug out from under their feet,” said one Barisan Nasional official.
Some joked that it must have been the effect of the “supermoon” that shone on the earth last night.
But it had little to do with the planets and everything to do with political timing.
Taib’s commitment to retire after the polls is best read as an election strategy to stem the Opposition tide, especially on the urban seats.
The media, which had converged on Serian where Taib and the Prime Minister were attending a function, was interested only in two things: the dissolution of the State Legislative Assembly and Taib’s retirement plans.
The Chief Minister was quite ready to announce that the Assembly would be dissolved on Monday but journalists had to do some coaxing regarding his retirement plans.
It was only when a journalist asked if he would hand over power in the mid-term to a new team, that he answered rather tentatively: “Yes, that is possible, that is my plan.”
The political picture now seems clear and yet not so clear: the big man is ready to go, the Federal side is agreeable, there will be no pressure on him but who will succeed him?
“He is hoping to sway the vote. The trouble is that he has said more or less the same thing earlier on.
“By now, he should have named his potential successors and the date to step down,” said Unimas political scientist Dr Faisal Hazis.
The urban sentiment against Taib is very strong and he may have to spell out a more specific exit plan to appease the urban electorate, many of whom had made up their minds months ago.
The loss of the Sibu parliamentary seat to DAP was a blaring siren of the urban mood.
“If his succession team includes family members, it could trigger even more anger,” said Dr Faisal.
Taib’s move seems to have unsettled some PKR leaders who were in Sarawak to present a 4WD vehicle to a Penan group.
Earlier in the day, PKR’s Batu MP Tian Chua tweeted that Najib had flown in to pressure Taib to step down and that Taib would not fall into the same trap as Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik and Datuk Seri Chan Kong Choy.
Then he went quiet when Taib did say he would be going.
Tian Chua also had to take some ribbing. While some praised his party for giving the Penans a vehicle, others asked what had happened to PKR’s campaign against “buy-elections”.
Taib’s retirement move will affect DAP the most. The party has six state seats and had been confident of expanding these to 15.
But the party’s campaign hinges around the man the Chinese call Pa Mao or “the white-haired man”.
If Pa Mao does go, the DAP’s campaign will be in big trouble.
As such, DAP leaders were scrambling to cast doubts on Taib’s retirement.
“Nothing short of Taib stepping down now would change the mood on the ground,” said Kuching MP Chong Chieng Jin.
Party adviser Lim Kit Siang dashed off a statement with the heading: “Taib not stepping down any time soon”.
He described Taib’s remarks as an “elaborate political dance”.
He said Taib would have no qualms of staying on after the polls with the excuse that he had not groomed a successor nor established a new team.
Taib will probably elaborate on his exit plan in the days to come and he will be treading a fine line between doubts that he will really go and appearing to be a lame-duck chief minister.
Those familiar with Taib’s style said the statement was a big concession on his part.
Sarawak’s most powerful man has always felt that he does not have to play by the rules of other people.
He is the only political leader in the country to have a Rolls Royce as his official car and his control over the state’s politics had lent him an aura of invincibility.
But the development politics of Sarawak is finally giving way to democratic demands by the people with the groundswell felt most in the urban seats.
In that sense, Taib’s gesture on the threshold of the state polls is acknowledgement that when the ground shifts, leaders must follow what the people want.
After months of trying to second-guess Taib, Sarawakians are about to go to the polls.
Taib is determined to give what may be his last state election the best fight of his life and even a scheduled umrah had to be called off.
Taib’s political legacy is about to be tested.
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