Local power moves in Sabah

Chief Minister Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor who is also Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) chief speaking to reporters after the GRS Supreme Council meeting in Kota Kinabalu on May 9.

The main coalition in the state seems to be making an effort to polish its local credibility.

WITH the birth of Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS), Perikatan Nasional is unofficially dead in Sabah.

On March 11, the Registrar of Societies approved the registration of GRS, which comprises Sabah Star, the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP), Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) and the Sabah chapter of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu). Perikatan includes three of the GRS parties – Bersatu, Sabah Star and SAPP – as well as PAS and Gerakan.

With the formation of GRS, what will happen to Perikatan in Sabah?

Sabah Bersatu, Sabah Star and SAPP leaders have stated that for the 15th General Election (GE15), it will be GRS and not Perikatan that will contest in the state. The leaders of Perikatan component parties prefer to face the Sabah electorate with a local coalition, not a national coalition.

The value of a “go local” political strategy was reinforced when homegrown Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) swept 76 out of the 82 seats available in the 2021 Sarawak polls.

By going local, GRS can present itself as a homegrown coalition fighting for Sabah’s rights, such as claiming 40% of revenue collected by the Federal Govern-ment from the state and demanding 20% of oil royalties instead of the 5% the state currently gets.

GRS wants to be the GPS of Sabah. But there are noticeable differences.

GPS is a locally-brewed coalition with four Sarawak-based parties, while GRS is not. While three of the GRS parties are Sabah-based, Bersatu isn’t, as it originated on Peninsular Malaysia.

GPS is chaired by Sarawak Premier Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg, who is seen as the “CEO” of his party as he is president of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu. GRS is chaired by Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor, who is perceived as the “branch manager” of Sabah Bersatu as he reports to his peninsula-based party’s president, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

The GPS government dominates Sarawak politics.

In the 2021 Sarawak polls, the coalition had enough clout to tell its Federal Government partners – Barisan Nasional and Perikatan – not to contest in the state polls. It even got Bersatu’s Datuk Ali Biju to withdraw as an independent candidate defending his Krian seat.

On the other hand, national parties, arguably, bully the GRS state government in its home base.

After the 2020 Sabah polls, the GRS government – consisting of Perikatan, Barisan (Umno, MCA, MIC and Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah) and PBS – was forced to appoint a leader from PAS, which has never won a seat in Sabah, as a nominated assemblyman.

When the formation of GRS was announced, some sceptical Sabahans asked: How can GRS be a Sabah-based coalition when Bersatu leads it?

The answer might lie in the announcement made by Hajiji on May 9 that GRS has accepted a fifth component party, Usno (United Sabah National Organisation).

From the 1960s to the 1980s, Usno was the Umno of Sabah until it was dissolved in 1991, and party members joined Umno. In 2018, Usno Baru was registered to revive the Sabah party, which dominated Muslim politics in the state under chief minister Tun Mustapha Harun.

Was Usno accepted into GRS so that it will be a vehicle for Sabah Bersatu leaders to join?

So far, no Bersatu assemblymen or MP has quit their party in Sabah. But for all intents and purposes, Bersatu is nearly dead in Sabah. (You can never kill off a party entirely as there will always be leaders or members remaining.)

Most of the Sabahan leaders in Bersatu see their party as a sinking ship. Many of them joined Bersatu when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister (2018-2020) and party chairman. All 17 Umno assemblymen, except former Sabah chief minister Tan Sri Musa Aman, and all eight Umno MPs, except Kinabatangan MP Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin, dumped their party, which was in Opposition then, to join the then prime minister’s party.

When Muhyiddin was prime minister (2020-2021), Bersatu won 11 seats in the 2020 Sabah polls. With the influence of the Bersatu president as prime minister, Sabah Bersatu chief Hajiji was appointed Chief Minister instead of Bung Moktar, the chief of Sabah Umno which had won 14 seats.

But with Bersatu no longer holding the powerful prime minister post after Muhyiddin quit in August 2021, Bersatu and Perikatan performed badly in the Melaka and Johor state elections.

There’s a possibility that Sabah Bersatu politicians will join Usno or become direct members of GRS. When this might happen depends on the timing. With the current fluidity of Malaysian politics, deft political timing matters.

“It’s like this: Sabah Bersatu will remain ‘married’ to Bersatu but it won’t be living with Bersatu, as it will cohabit with GRS. In other words, it won’t announce a divorce from Bersatu, but the marriage is practically over,” a GRS insider explained to me.

“When these leaders leave Bersatu to be with either Usno, GRS [as direct members] or a new Sabah party, it will mean that GRS will be a 100% Sabah-based coalition.”

Another reason Sabah Bersatu formed GRS was to consolidate its grip on power by establishing a formal alliance with PBS, Sabah Star and SAPP.

GRS is also considering the application of Parti Kesejahteraan Demokratik Masyarakat (KDM) to come into the fold. Parti KDM is an attractive potential component party for GRS chairman Hajiji as it has two assemblymen who quit Parti Warisan to become independents.

There’s talk that Hajiji might get the support of Warisan president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal. But political reality dictates that Hajiji cannot align himself with Shafie because a “political octopus” waiting in the wings – one that has tentacles in almost all parties in Sabah – could trigger assemblymen from Bersatu, PBS and Sabah Star to withdraw support from the Chief Minister.

Hajiji and Bersatu need the numbers as there’s a possibility of the resurgent Umno muscling its way back into the state and taking over the chief minister post.

The quirk about GRS is that Umno is not part of the coalition even though the national-level party is part of the GRS government consisting of Perikatan, Barisan and PBS.

So is Umno a friend or a foe of GRS in Sabah?

It is still not known whether GE15 in Sabah will become a three- or four-cornered fight among Sabah’s major coalitions and parties. Will it be GRS + Barisan vs Pakatan Harapan (PKR, DAP, Amanah and Upko) vs Warisan? Or GRS vs Barisan vs Pakatan vs Warisan?

During the May 9 press conference in Kota Kinabalu, the media asked GRS chairman Hajiji about Perikatan’s position in Sabah. The Chief Minister’s answer was vague: “We focus on GRS,” Hajiji said.

He ended the press conference after that, not giving the press a chance to ask the “elephant in the room” question: “What is the status of Sabah Bersatu now that Usno has been accepted into GRS?”

It left unaddressed the possible eventual exodus of members from Bersatu, a national party, to a local party.

GRS is following the path of GPS, which abandoned Barisan after the historic change in the Federal Government in 2018 when Pakatan took over, to become a locally- based coalition.

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