KOTA KINABALU: There is intense campaigning to win the hearts, minds and votes of non-Muslim natives in Sabah.
Four non-Muslim-based multiracial parties are battling it out for 24 state seats. These mainly ethnic Kadazandusun-Murut (KDM) and Rungus communities are spread along Sabah’s Crocker range from the south to the north and interior of the state.
Three key parties Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) led by Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili, Sabah STAR headed by Datuk Jeffrey Kitingan and Upko spearheaded by Datuk Wilfred Madius Tangau are hoping to become the community’s “undisputed” champion.
Both PBS and Sabah STAR are in the Opposition while Upko is part of Warisan Plus.
Also in the shadows is the interior-based opposition Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS) led by Tan Sri Joseph Kurup and Warisan Sabah’s deputy president Datuk Darell Leiking.
Sabah Universiti Teknologi Mara senior lecturer Tony Paridi Bagang said it would be fascinating to see the voting pattern of the non-Muslim native communities.
“It is difficult to determine whether they vote en bloc or otherwise, considering that the battleground this time is pretty much different, ” he said.
He noted the “friendly contest” among the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) bloc comprising Barisan Nasional, Perikatan Nasional and PBS could be interpreted as fragile cooperation.
Meanwhile, PBS – whose president Maximus has taken a backseat from campaigning, following doctor’s advice to rest due to a medical condition – is contesting 22 seats and is taking on the GRS-friendly Sabah STAR and Sabah Barisan’s PBRS and Umno.
Bagang said PBS must take this opportunity to prove that it was significant and more decisive despite Maximus not in the forefront.
“This is important to quash the negative perceptions and rebuild confidence towards the party, ” he said when asked if PBS could become a significant player.
Since winning the Keningau parliamentary seat in the 14th General Election, Jeffrey’s party has been trying to gain a foothold in the non-Muslim bumiputra heartland.
His pro-Sabah rights stand resonates with the interior folk but he faces a six-cornered contest in his own Tambunan seat, which he won only by about 1,000-vote majority.
Among his challenges are newcomer Silverius Bruno from PBS and Upko’s Datuk Laurentius Ambu.
“Jeffrey’s political struggles on Sabah’s rights are very close to the heart of Sabahans, especially among the KDMs. His struggles are consistent although he has changed parties a few times.
“His strategy on harping on regional sentiments seems significant to gain political support, ” Bagang said.
Meanwhile, Upko has been trying to break the PBS-Sabah STAR-PBRS hold over the community.
Upko’s Madius, who is contesting for the first time for a state seat, is trying to make a breakthrough in the non-Muslim native areas using its own party symbol for the first time in 12 seats.
Madius himself is in a tough fight with PBS’ Kiulu incumbent Datuk Joniston Bangkuai, who is widely seen as a rising Kadazandusun leader from his constituency on the foothills of Mount Kinabalu.
Bagang said the rebranded Upko strengthens Warisan Plus’ position in attracting the non-Muslim native community but whether there would be significant influence on the community could only be answered on election day.
Bagang noted the main issues for the non-Muslim bumiputra were socio-economic, native rights, culture, representation in public administration and education.
He said the decades-old issue of illegal immigrants remained a key issue which would be played up by all contesting parties.
“Ironically, there are hardly any effective solutions, ” he said.
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