A MAN on fire - that is what Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal has been like on the Sabah election campaign trail.
He is campaigning as though there is no tomorrow and there might be no tomorrow for him if his Warisan Plus coalition loses the state election.
He does not have much of a report card to show for his short-lived stint as Sabah Chief Minister but he has managed to cobble together a simple yet clear narrative about what Sabahans want.
He had basically tapped into the latent sense of resentment that Sabahans have about "Malaya", the term they use for Peninsular Malaysia, and the huge gap in development and standard of living between the two regions.
His team is not all that impressive either but his fiery and soaring oratory is carrying many of the less remarkable candidates.
Shafie was on a roll and his charisma was at a peak when his campaign suddenly hit a road bump at the most inopportune moment - a day before early voting for security personnel in the state was due to start.
A video of Warisan’s Segama candidate Datuk Mohamaddin Ketapi making controversial comments about the 2013 Lahad Datu invasion had gone viral.
It was one those own goals and it could not have been scored at a worse time because Mohamaddin, who was the former tourism minister, was deemed as insulting the Armed Forces.
Shafie himself apologised for the remarks but the incident is bound to affect Warisan’s standing in the eyes of the bumiputra-Muslim voters and more so the security forces.
Shafie’s campaign has relied on simple messaging that he repeats at every ceramah stop.
But it is the way he delivers his message - fierce, like a fighter, and with a stern demeanour even when cracking a joke.
This is in contrast to the mixed messaging coming from Warisan’s most formidable opponents, who are grouped under the umbrella of Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS).
GRS comprises Perikatan Nasional and its Sabah allies, Barisan Nasional and the once mighty PBS.
GRS has actually launched its manifesto which, among other things, addresses Sabahans’ aspiration desire for greater state autonomy by promising to set up a committee on the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63).
"It’s a good move except that MA63 and PTI (the issue of illegal immigrants) are played up at every election," said a researcher who has been covering the Kadazandusun-Murut (KDM) campaign ground.
A GRS victory would be more likely to deliver much needed infrastructure and progress to the state except that development promises do not seem to have the same impact as before.
A political insider said the impasse in GRS over their chief minister candidate was a drawback because voters want to know who will be leading the state.
Umno has been irked at how Shafie has played up anti-Federal sentiments and the way he has accused the Federal Government of taking a chunk of Sabah’s oil and gas revenue.
Last weekend, Umno supreme council member Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad, who is from Kelantan, hit back during a ceramah in Sandakan.
"Not only Sabah, but Kelantan is also unhappy about oil royalties. For 22 years, 'Atok' (Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) did not give Kelantan our share of oil royalities. He used it to build highways and the Petronas Twin Towers.
"I want to ask you. Who in Sabah is close to Atok, who wanted Atok as the PM over Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin?"
The crowd shouted in response: "Shafie!" and "Karamkan kapal Warisan (Sink the Warisan ship)" in reference to the party’s logo.
There are basically three broad cultural groups who will decide which way the vote goes this Saturday.
The first and biggest group is the bumiputra-Muslim bloc which is quite evenly split between Warisan and GRS.
Shafie commands the bumiputra-Muslims on the east coast while GRS is strong on the west coast.
Umno’s hold over the west coast seats is still very strong and they have a sound ground machinery.
At the same time, the internal tensions between Umno and Bersatu are also very real.
A top Umno leader from Kuala Lumpur who has been helping in the campaign described the situation as "messy".
Then there is the KDM vote which, according to Seeds think-tank chief Dr Arnold Puyok, is "all over the place".
"The KDM vote is very hard to predict this time. They know what they want like preserving their cultural identity and jobs but their support is split among too many parties," said Dr Arnold.
It is among the KDM and bumiputra-Muslims that Shafie is struggling to shake off allegations that his party had wanted to legalise illegal immigrants.
The third group is the Chinese, whose votes will affect some six or seven seats in the election.
"The Chinese used to be unsure about Warisan but they want to give Shafie a chance," said Kimanis Warisan chief Datuk Karim Bujang.
With the other two blocs so badly split, the Chinese just might be the kingmaker in this closely-fought race.
The above political insider said the dream of a Sabah for Sabahans had been around for decades.
"Many bumiputra-Muslims also like the idea. The trouble was that the Muslims did not feel comfortable that the call was coming from the largely Christian KDM community," said the insider.
But for the first time, this clarion call is coming from a Muslim leader in the form of Shafie and it has rattled local sentiments like never before.
It explains why an election that was sparked by a failed take-over bid has grown into a watershed contest that may shake up the traditional base of many parties in the state like never before.
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