SANDAKAN: It was lunch time at a restaurant in Bandar Kim Fung, about eight kilometres from town.
A 30-something Chinese woman, who had accompanied her parents to cast their vote in the Sandakan parliamentary by-election, received a WhatsApp message from DAP.
The message urged party supporters to go out and vote. At 1pm, the voter turnout was at 37%.
The woman was worried that a low voter turnout would affect the rocket, the symbol of DAP.
Political operatives from the Parti Warisan Sabah/Pakatan Harapan government were also worried.
In the afternoon, they made a push for more voters to be out.
About 54% of the 40,131 voters had turned up when polling closed at 5pm.
It was lower than the 71% in the 14th General Election.
The low turnout is attributed to outstation voters mostly from Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore not returning to vote and voters living in Sandakan who abstained as a protest against Pakatan.
“By-elections, in general, see low voter turnouts, but in this case it was exacerbated by voter complacency in presuming a DAP win,” said Dr Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
Those sympathetic to Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) or who were neutral saw the low voter turnout as an indication that PBS could pull off an upset.
They were wrong.
Vivian Wong, daughter of the late Sandakan MP, Datuk Stephen Wong, who died of a heart attack on March 28, trounced PBS’ Datuk Linda Tsen, a former two-term Batu Sapi MP.
Her majority of more than 11,000 was higher than the 10,098 majority her father got in the straight fight with Barisan Nasional in 2018.
Wong’s victory showed that the Chinese who overwhelmingly voted for her father, who won the parliamentary seat twice, remained loyal to DAP.
They might be unhappy with Pakatan’s U-turns, broken promises and the rising cost of living, but they were not disgruntled enough to vote for the opposition.
“It has only been one year. Give them a chance,” said the woman who received the message from DAP for voters to turn up.
Oh said the Chinese voted for DAP because the alternative of empowering a racial Umno, which PBS was widely perceived to be fronting, was too hard for many Chinese voters to swallow.
Political observers also said PBS’ loss was due to having picked the wrong candidate.
They said that Tsen was a reluctant candidate and also judged her prior performance as Batu Sapi MP.
“She is a nice person who did not do anything for her constituency, which shared the Sandakan town with the Sandakan parliamentary seat,” they said.
Another factor is that the PBS’ campaign lacked oomph.
It relied on walkabouts, meeting people house to house and shop to shop, and giving out leaflets which looked like they were printed in the 1980s.
Umno’s campaign to support Tsen with fiery speakers like Kinabatangan MP Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin and Usno leader and former Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin was more exciting than PBS’ lacklustre performance.
Datuk Seri Najib Razak managed to “rah rah” the Muslim bumiputra crowd when he visited Sandakan on Friday and yesterday.
But the former prime minister did not manage to swing the Muslim fence-sitters to vote for PBS.
“The Bossku effect was not there. Maybe Umno and PBS did not have funds for duit tambang (transport money) to mobilise the voters,” said a former state minister from Sandakan.
Oh said Umno, being no longer in power, could not deliver the “goodies” as efficiently as before.
He also said that DAP won with a big margin despite a low voter turnout, and PBS did badly because of Najib.
“It backfired. Bossku’s presence in Sandakan had the opposite effect of making the Chinese voters turn out to vote,” he said.
DAP’s victory was also Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal’s.
The Warisan president, who campaigned extensively for DAP, showed that he could deliver Muslim and Chinese votes to his DAP partner. Political observers said that just like in Sandakan in GE14, Shafie could draw the Muslim bumiputra, especially the Bajau and Suluk, to mark X on the rocket symbol.
“In addition to the Chinese votes, Shafie and Warisan worked extra hard in canvassing for Muslim votes, which eventually came through,” Oh added.
DAP’s victory is an endorsement of Shafie’s command of the state that he rules.
“Unless Warisan makes missteps, I foresee that it will rule Sabah for another 10 years,” said the former Sabah minister.
With DAP’s victory, Pakatan has put a stop to the opposition’s three-in-a-row winning streak.
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