The opposition should focus on Sabah

Raja Petra Kamarudin

On Saturday, 21 June 2003, I wrote an article called ‘Keadilan/DAP should lead in Selangor, Perak, Penang and Pahang; PAS in the four ‘Malay’ states’, which was published in the Free Anwar Campaign website. That was exactly two years ago, tomorrow.

And this is what I said in the article:

For four years now, the National Justice Party (Keadilan) has been saying that the 680,000 voters who were denied their right to vote in the November 1999 General Election, had they been allowed to vote, would have changed the entire scenario of the last election.

Keadilan further claims that a major portion of these 680,000 voters were opposition supporters so, had they voted, the opposition would not only have won more seats, but more states as well.

“Hogwash!” said Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1999. “We have checked and these 680,000 were our voters. So it was BN that lost their votes by not allowing them to vote.”

Well, at the ongoing 57th (or is it 15th?) Umno General Assembly, Umno finally admitted that a major portion of the 680,000 voters were indeed opposition voters and, had the government not blocked them from voting, more than two states would have fallen to the opposition.

I just love it when I can say, “I told you so!”

In the 1999 General Election, the opposition garnered 2.6 million votes against the ruling party’s 3.1 million, a majority of only 500,000 votes for the ruling party.

680,000 additional votes are therefore quite substantial.

Even if the opposition got only 70% of these additional votes and the balance went to the ruling party, this means the opposition would have got 3.1 million votes against the ruling party’s 3.3 million.

In terms of percentage, in the 1999 General Election, the opposition won 46% of the votes against the ruling party’s 54%. If the 680,000 additional votes had been included, the opposition would have got 48% of the votes against the ruling party’s 52%.

And this is based on a conservative 70:30 ratio; opposition to ruling party. Umno feels the ratio is actually much higher in favour of the opposition; something like 90:10. If this is so, then a 50:50 outcome would not have been a pipedream.

And that was why the 680,000 voters were prevented from voting. And, two days ago, Umno admitted it.

One very important point to note is; the opposition coalition, Barisan Alternatif, faced the election with only four political parties against Barisan Nasional’s coalition of 14 parties. Therefore, under these circumstances, you can say that the opposition performed better than the ruling party.

But that is all history now. The more important question to now ask is, how many new voters will there be come the next general election in 2004? In the last general election, there were about 8 million registered voters while about 70% came out to vote. Will it be 10 million or 11 million the next general election? And if the usual 70% come out to vote, this will see an increase of roughly 1,650,000 voters.

And the next and even more important question: how many of these 1,650,000 new votes will go to the opposition and how many to the ruling party?

Let us assume, for argument’s sake, that the 1999 General Election scenario is repeated and that the same 2.6 million who voted for the opposition and 3.1 million who voted for the ruling party continue to do so — meaning not many have ‘changed sides’ since the last election. And, let us assume that 70% of the new 1,650,000 voters vote for the opposition while 30% of the votes will go to the ruling party.

This means, come the next election, the opposition will get 3,755,000 votes against the ruling party’s 3,595,000.

Unfortunately, due to gerrymandering, even though the opposition will get more votes than the ruling party — 51% vs. 49% — the ruling party will still retain its simple majority in Parliament, as well as in most states, though it would lose its two-thirds majority. The bottom line is: the opposition will need to win 60% of the votes to kick the ruling party out of office.

For instance, the ruling party won only 54% of the votes in the 1999 General Election yet it still retained about 80% of its seats in Parliament. And it is going to get worse the next election due to the recent delineation exercise that would make the gerrymandering even more in favour of the ruling party.

The opposition needs to address this as soon as possible. Whether the opposition coalition, Barisan Alternatif, is still viable or not is not that crucial. An electoral pact needs to be drawn up immediately. Maybe a Keadilan-DAP ‘coalition’ should lead the charge in Selangor, Perak, Penang and Pahang while PAS should take the lead in Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis. These are the eight states most likely to fall to the opposition, if properly handled.

The opposition needs to get its act together. Egos need to be put aside and pragmatism needs to prevail. There are many stumbling blocks facing the opposition. Pondering on how to win the hearts and minds of the new voters is not the only task. The opposition also needs to ensure that the ‘old’ voters have not abandoned it and ‘new’ issues, like the Islamic State and many more, have not frightened them away.

If any of the ‘old’ 2.6 million voters cross over to the ruling party it will not be because BN won them over but because BA scared them away. And there is little purpose in winning the hearts and minds of the new voters if it will be offset by losing the old voters to BN.

Well, that was what I said two years ago, nine months before the last general election of March 2004. The opposition in fact garnered slightly less than 2.6 million votes. While some ‘new’ voters did swing over to the opposition, it also lost many of the ‘old’ voters, so the net result was a slight drop in votes over the 1999 election.

The sad thing about all this is, first, this had been predicted and it was due to many factors. Other than the Islamic State issue there was also the break-up of BA due to DAP leaving it, plus a credibility problem — that the opposition had no real agenda and was not capable of managing the country’s economy. Dr Mahathir leaving the scene, thereby removing the ‘hate element’, was another factor. The opposition lost its ‘enemy’ and was not successful in creating a new enemy for the voters. And certainly Abdullah Ahmad Badawi could not be this new enemy. Not only was he new (meaning ‘clean’) and still enjoying his ‘honeymoon’, but he was also perceived as not guilty of any involvement in the Anwar Ibrahim conspiracy.

The second sad thing is: this situation remains till today. The next general election may be less than two years away. It is predicted it may be called some time in March 2007. If this is so, that leaves barely 21 months for the opposition to get its act together. But it is still suffering from the aftershocks of the March 2004 General Election and is yet to regain its composure.

The backlash to the 11th General Election fiasco can be seen in the recent leadership shake-up in PAS. But that is still not enough. The leaders may have been changed but the party’s agenda still remains the same. At best it is merely new clothes on the same old body. And the change cannot be just at PAS level. It has to be at BA level as well and currently there is no real BA to speak about.

In the first place, BA, which is Barisan Alternatif or Alternative Front, may need a name change to Barisan Rakyat (BR) or Peoples’ Front. This sounds better than ‘alternative’ as alternative means second best. Then, BR must sit down and agree on seat allocations and territorial claims. From now it must be agreed which party is contesting where so that each party can then start deciding on its candidates and the candidates can start working their constituencies instead of ‘parachuting’ there on Nomination Day whereby they would be ‘unknowns’.

The constituencies need to be wisely selected. With the limited resources available to the opposition — money, people and media control — it just cannot take on the whole country. Some states, such as in the South, are ‘closed’ to the opposition so it would be futile to attempt grabbing them from the ruling party.

Kelantan and Terengganu are strong opposition states. Kelantan has remained with the opposition the last three elections and there is no reason this cannot prevail. Terengganu, though in the hands of the opposition for only one term, can fall back to the opposition basically because the people have not seen any changes with the ruling party running the state and they are very unhappy about it. Furthermore, Umno Terengganu is in turmoil and this works to the benefit of the opposition.

Kedah’s situation is almost similar to Terengganu and, unless things improve, the opposition is well poised to take that state as well. As for Selangor, Perak, Penang and Pahang, the opposition can deny the ruling party its two-thirds majority in these states if it unites and picks its seats wisely.

And that brings us to East Malaysia. Sarawak is touch-and-go but Sabah could be another Kelantan if the opposition parties put their minds to it. Just like in Kelantan in 1990 and Terengganu in 1999, Sabah can fall to the opposition not so much because the opposition is strong but because the ruling party is weak and badly divided. And what was the scenario in Kelantan in 1990 and Terengganu in 1999 is prevalent in Sabah today.

Musa Aman, the Chief Minister, is much disliked. 17 or 18 of Sabah’s 25 divisions are against him and are working relentlessly behind the scenes to bring about his downfall. Musa Aman was supposed to have retired in March this year but instead his tenure as Chief Minister was extended indefinitely.

Just like what happened to Mohd Yaacob, the Chief Minister of Kelantan in 1990, and Wan Mokhtar, the Chief Minister of Terengganu in 1999, the only way to oust Musa Aman now would be to give the state to the opposition. And, just like Umno Kelantan and Umno Terengganu in 1990 and 1999 respectively, Umno Sabah would give the state to the opposition just to see Musa Aman sent packing with his tail between his legs.

If Musa Aman remains as Chief Minister and leads Umno Sabah in the coming general election, the opposition has an extremely good chance of grabbing this state. So it would be prudent for the opposition to focus on Sabah instead of Johor, Melaka or Negeri Sembilan.

Many of the top Umno Sabah leaders have in fact met up with Anwar Ibrahim to express their desire to join the opposition. They are just so disgusted with Musa Aman they would rather risk their future with the opposition instead of remaining in Umno. When Anwar visited Sabah soon after his release from prison these same people sponsored tables for the dinner to commemorate Anwar’s first visit to the state since he was incarcerated in 1998.

Anwar, however, wisely told them to remain in Umno Sabah. An ‘enemy in the blanket’ is worth 100 soldiers in the field, especially since these soldiers can be regarded as ‘generals’ in Umno Sabah.

Last week, Musa Aman went to Hong Kong for a ‘business trip’ and SMS messages were flying profusely all over Malaysia that he went there to collect RM50 million in cash, his commission for the Benta Wawasan logging concessions he gave out. Of course, the truth of SMS messages cannot be verified. But what is most interesting is not so much the content of the text messages and whether they are true or false but the people behind this SMS campaign. The SMS messages were being circulated by those top Umno Sabah leaders who had publicly pledged undying support and loyalty to Musa Aman.

Musa Aman must be feeling a lot like Julius Ceaser. And he is being surrounded by not one Brutus but many, more like 18.

Sabah is ripe for an opposition takeover just like Kelantan in 1990 and Terengganu in 1999. PAS, however, would not be able to make much headway there. Sabah is not a ‘Muslim’ state like Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis. Furthermore, the Sabah Muslims are very liberal and the Islamic State thingy would not go down well there. Even DAP would face problems as it is perceived as a ‘Chinese’ party. Sabahan are multi-cultural by nature so a multi-cultural party like Parti Keadilan Rakyat needs to take the lead. And, to add icing to the cake, Anwar has a very strong image in Sabah. Many would follow him even if he had no party and was a purely ‘independent’ politician.

That is the way of Sabah politics. And Sabah does have a history of changing governments, even in favour of an opposition government.