Controversial Sabah Temporary Pass and swing votes deciding factors in Kimanis by-election

Warisan candidate Datuk Karim Bujang meets the residents in Kimanis January 11, 2020. ― Bernama pic
Warisan candidate Datuk Karim Bujang meets the residents in Kimanis January 11, 2020. ― Bernama pic

KIMANIS, Jan 18 — In the race for the Kimanis parliamentary seat, the Opposition will know by tonight whether their gamble on harping on the Sabah Temporary Pass (PSS) will pay off.

If voters in this friendly west coast town choose Warisan, it likely means the PSS issue does not resonate with the majority as much as the desire for continued development under the government of the day.

But if voters choose to elect the Opposition Umno candidate, it is a loud wake-up call for the state government to relook at the controversial foreigner documentation as well as other policies and procedures.

Whichever way it goes in this straight fight among two once-close rivals, there’s no denying that the PSS was front and centre of this by-election.

Facing a constant barrage of attacks from leaders through campaign speeches, billboard wars, a protest rally and daily narrative on the ground, Warisan and their Pakatan Harapan (PH) partners have spent a lot of time and energy having to reassure people that PSS would not pose a citizenship risk and was a positive move towards solving the state’s immigrant issue.

But despite this, on the eve of polling day analysts are still cautiously predicting Warisan to be the lead, but also saying it can go either way in the event of an unexpected swing.

“I know many are still undecided. Many of the kampung folk are fence-sitters,” said University Institut Teknologi Mara lecturer Asri Salleh.

“Most will follow the lead of the head of the family on polling day,” he said.

In this election, Warisan candidate Datuk Karim Bujang is taking on Umno’s Datuk Mohamad Alamin. Both were once Bongawan assemblymen who had lost in GE14, albeit in different seats.

The consensus seems to be that Umno’s patronage politics all these decades have paid off with loyalty among the Muslim natives of Kimanis, where the Brunei people enjoy asphalt roads, streetlights and varying levels of business success under the Barisan Nasional (BN) administration.

This is apparent in some of BN strongholds like Pimping, Brunei and Binsuluk where voter turnouts for BN ceramahs are bigger and than those of the government.

But when GE14 rolled around in 2018, a split among the Muslim natives was evident through the polls, where Warisan candidate Karim garnered almost as many votes as Umno incumbent Datuk Anifah Aman, losing out by a mere 156 votes.

BN candidate Datuk Mohamad Alamin and Warisan candidate Datuk Karim Bujang pose for pictures on Nomination Day at Dewan Datuk Seri Panglima Dun Banir in Beaufort January 4, 2020. ― Bernama pic
BN candidate Datuk Mohamad Alamin and Warisan candidate Datuk Karim Bujang pose for pictures on Nomination Day at Dewan Datuk Seri Panglima Dun Banir in Beaufort January 4, 2020. ― Bernama pic

Since then, it is expected that the Umno voters be further split when Membakut assemblyman Datuk Ariffin Arif switched sides last year to join Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

These have opened up possibilities for swings in these camps as some may be hiding their true intentions.

“Although each side has their own loyal supporters, some will switch sides at the last minute.

“Some Warisan supporters have said they will vote for the BN, not because they like BN but because they want to make a point to Warisan and make them improve,” said University Malaysia Sabah researcher and lecturer James Alin.

Many voters have made known their displeasure with the lack of progress, development, aids and projects in the southwestern district which is lagging behind the two adjacent constituencies.

Mother of three Aminah Othman runs a small cafe in Membakut and said business has been slow in the past year, due to the rising cost of living.

“I don’t see any difference in the new government. In fact, things are getting more expensive and I think we are worse off. When we ask for help, we are told there is no money,” she said.

“To make matters worse, some of the leaders appear to be handing out contracts to their people, and even that is not getting done. They are so greedy, and they failed to deliver,” said Rahman Helfi, a voter in Bongawan.

But still, at the end of the day, being in the government still means a better shot at development. In the interest of continued relations, many voters, across all races, will opt to vote for the government of the day.

This is also backed up by research from Ilham Centre, who conducted a field research which suggested that voters of the Muslim Brunei race, who form more than 60 per cent of the majority and those in rural areas were more prone to keeping on a government representative.

In contrast, the non-Muslim natives, politically grouped together as Kadazan Dusun Murut or KDM, were more emotional when it came to the PSS and are predicted to be the kingmaker in this close call.

KDMs make up some 30 per cent of the voter base, but they are also scattered into voting districts, although some eight or nine polling districts is said to contain a significant amount of KDM voters that could turn the tide.

But KDMs in the area also crave development, being left behind compared to their Brunei counterparts, and will have to choose between an increasingly right-wing Umno and the new unproven but multiracial Warisan.

The two candidates seem to make less of a different factor to voters, who are instead more prone to choosing the party. But in Ilham’s research, Karim was the more affable of the two, also having been around longer.

In terms of campaign machinery, the BN has proven its years of experience and expertise, putting out material and organised events timely and efficiently.

“Their rhetoric is focused on PSS, and they have managed to band together with local parties for the unified front, even if the parties mostly campaigned separately.  Umno does not share their finance with other parties,” said Alin.

Their Himpunan Muafakat Rakyat Sabah was the biggest attended event of the by-election as of today, even if a portion of the crowd appeared to be clad in BN’s blue. They also showcased the opposition’s power with a consistent flow of national leaders mostly from Umno.

“Bossku” Datuk Seri Najib Razak himself showed up on three separate occasions to lend some star power. President Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was here for the days surrounding their main event.

In contrast, Warisan has opted for more intimate affairs of low hundreds of people at most, mostly festive affairs for Christmas, Chinese New Year and in community centres, with a clear local feel.

Shafie remains the main face of his campaign, with sporadic appearances from PKR’s Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Datuk Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, PPBM’s Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir among others.

Sabah PPBM chair Datuk Hajiji Noor was also seen with candidate Karim.

“BN still has the stronger finances it seems but Warisan made use of government machinery,” said Asri.

“In the end, this Kimanis by-election is also a test for both coalitions moving forward into GE15,” he added.