GPS may capture 28 seats if Chinese-led opposition remains split

The logos of GPS and the nine Opposition parties participating in the 12th Sarawak Election.

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Commentary

By Lian Cheng

Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) vice president Dato Sri Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah’s claim that ruling coalition Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) could capture at least 28 seats in the upcoming 15th General Election may sound arrogant but current political interplay suggests that it is plausible and attainable.

The assertion of a clean sweep of 31 seats by a local political observer, however, may just be too far-fetched, if not excessively confident, taking into consideration the unpredictable mentality of the Chinese voters.

There are in total 31 parliamentary seats in Sarawak. During the 2018 General Election, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) which traditionally contested in 14 seats lost in Puncak Borneo to Datuk Willie Mongin who was then with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

Following Willie’s recent acceptance into PBB, the backbone party of GPS now holds all the 14 seats entrusted to it.

Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP) affected by the winds of change brought about by Pakatan Harapan which was then at its height, lost six out of the seven seats it was allocated. These seven were Serian, Bandar Kuching, Stampin, Sarikei, Sibu, Lanang and Miri. Apart from the Bidayuh majority seat of Serian which SUPP managed to defend under its deputy president Dato Sri Richard Riot, the rest which are all Chinese majority seats were lost to Democratic Action Party (DAP) and PKR.

Compared to SUPP which lost 86 per cent of seats allocated to it, Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) failed to win 50 per cent of seats it was given to contest. It lost Lubok Antu, Julau, Selangau, keeping only Sri Aman, Kanowit and Hulu Rajang. That was not the worst. The rural-based party suffered another blow when its Sri Aman MP Datuk Masir Kujat left to join Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) which he later resigned from, rendering him for now an independent MP.

Like PRS, Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) also suffered defeat in 50 per cent of the seats it contested during GE14, losing Saratok to Datuk Ali Biju of PKR, who later left and joined Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and Mas Gading to DAP’s Mordi Bimol.

PBB is practically unbeatable in rural seats and for many years, it had not lost in any rural seat it contested, that is until 2018 when it lost Puncak Borneo. The bigger loss suffered by PRS and PDP was a wake up call. GPS learnt the bitter lesson that it could no longer take rural voters’ support for granted but must put in effort to ensure that development reaches rural constituencies.

Despite steps taken to woo rural voters, the results of the 2021 Sarawak Election showed that there continued to be tough fights for GPS in several rural constituencies as seen in its less than expected vote totals and in some cases, surprisingly narrow winning margins. Out of the 11 seats PRS contested, two of the constituencies were won with a majority of less than 1,000 votes, namely Batang Ai (738 out of 7,195 votes) and Ngemah (261 out of 6,907 votes).

SUPP’s Datuk Francis Harden Hollis defended the Simanggang seat with a razor thin majority of 175 votes out of 8,080 votes while PDP’s lawmakers for Saratok and Meluan also presented a small majority of 932 (out of 8,897 votes) and 822 (out of 9902 votes) respectively. Even for PBB, its Pakan candidate Tan Sri William Mawan, a very senior politician, only managed to defend the seat with a majority of 714 votes out of 7,945 votes cast.

All these figures are not to be dismissed as insignificant if GPS aims to win at least 28 seats in GE15 just because there is a general perception that there is a “good feeling”.

Following GPS chairman Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg’s successful endeavours such as the five per cent sales tax on petroleum and petroleum products, the return of fishing rights, increment of Sarawak and Sabah seats to 35 per cent and many other initiatives, there is a general belief that GPS will retain all 24 rural seats in upcoming national polls, especially now that he made the call to secure all seats to fight for greater autonomy with a greater voice. His policies and reformative measures may be more readily accepted by the rural folks, but will it fare as well among the more skeptical Chinese voters?

Again based on the 2021 Sarawak Election results, GPS won most Chinese-majority seats due to the participation of many Chinese-led opposition parties which had split opposition votes.

For example, in Bukit Assek, it was a six-cornered fight among SUPP, DAP, PSB, Party Aspirasi Rakyat Sarawak (Aspirasi), Parti Bumi Kenyalang (PBK) and an independent. DAP, PSB, Aspirasi and PBK each had taken up a portion of the opposition votes while SUPP’s Joseph Chieng alone stood to enjoy all pro-GPS votes, resulting in him wresting the seat with a 874-vote majority.

Tanjong Batu is an even better illustration where it was another six-cornered-fight with Johnny Pang claiming the seat with a mere 23-vote majority against his biggest adversary Tony Chiew from DAP who garnered 4,069 votes, PBK’s Yek Hock Seng (2,204 votes), PSB’s Tang Eng Hui (1,071), Aspirasi’s Chieng Lea Phing (93) and independent Wong Haw Ming (38).

There is no denying that GPS reaped a resounding victory by taking back most of the urban seats from the opposition in the 2021 Sarawak Election. That has been why the Chinese-led opposition parties in Sarawak such as DAP Sarawak, PSB (led by Dato Sri Wong Soon Koh), PBK (Voon Lee Shan) and Aspirasi (Lina Soo) have tried to come to the table to seek a solution where clashing against each other may be avoided in the upcoming general election in the Chinese-majority areas.

Yet the fact remains that their highest chances for a seat in Parliament are in the Chinese-majority seats which are very few. There are in fact only seven Chinese-majority parliamentary seats in Sarawak namely Bandar Kuching, Stampin, Sibu, Lanang, Sarikei, Miri and Bintulu which firstly are not enough to be distributed among them and secondly, except for Bintulu and Miri, they are all held by DAP Sarawak, which has for decades been a formidable opponent for SUPP, as well as a Chinese rights defender. Why should DAP Sarawak, out of the blue, give way to new emerging parties such as PSB, PBK and Aspirasi whose capability as effective opposition has yet to be proven?

Coming back to Abdul Karim’s prediction that GPS will capture at least 28 seats, it is believed the Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts Minister did not make the statement without basis. The general “feel good” vibe is still around though voters have moved away from politics to focus on making lives better, in the fading shadow of the Covid-19 menace. Apart from the speculation on the upcoming GE15 and its plausible outcome, there are generally no major political issues in Sarawak. It is peaceful and quiet here on this side of the South China Sea.

It should be so. This should be the right vibe and the right atmosphere where everyone gets on with life instead of politicking over petty issues which bring no benefits to Sarawak’s development or to the progress of its people. And precisely because Sarawak is peaceful and non-quarrelsome, the results of GE15 will remain quite predictable — GPS will come out with perhaps all the rural seats and half of the urban seats should the Chinese-led opposition continue to remain splintered. — DayakDaily

The distribution of Sarawak’s 31 parliamentary seats by party.