THE way public discourse is shaping up, it looks like Sarawak is already in an election mode.
This despite the fact that there is about 1½ years left to the term of the state assembly.
The latest — and possibly pivotal over the longer term — political development is the decision by Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), the main party in the ruling Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), to accept Mambong assemblyman Datuk Dr Jerip Susil as a member.
Dr Jerip, the state assistant minister of transport, was originally a member of another GPS party, Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP).
A serious split in SUPP saw him aligning with the breakaway United People’s Party (UPP) before the latter was recently renamed as Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) where he was deputy president.
Despite the split, PSB (and UPP before it) was retained as a friendly party and its leaders remained in their state government posts until it was booted out recently after disquiet from the three smaller GPS parties.
But not before Dr Jerip executed another political somersault and bolted PSB on the eve of its departure from the state government.
GPS, finally purged of a non-member in government, however, retained an anomaly by keeping Dr Jerip, newly an independent assemblyman, as an assistant minister.
That anomaly is now corrected with him as a PBB member, but in its wake, far-reaching consequences may be at play.
SUPP has let it be known that while individual assemblymen may switch parties even in GPS, the party continues to stake its claim to the seat held by Dr Jerip.
SUPP, Sarawak’s oldest political party, may be better known as the Chinese component in government, but its roots are multi-racial.
While the party has mostly abandoned its multi-racial pretensions, it retains a measure of political following among the Bidayuhs, the second largest Dayak community.
Dr Jerip and Datuk Seri Richard Riot (SUPP deputy president and its sole member of parliament) are Bidayuhs and the Bidayuh-majority areas they represent are among the semi-urban political constituencies that SUPP’s political nemesis, the Sarawak DAP, breached in the last general election.
Bidayuh-majority seats also figure prominently in the claim by PBB to be the party to unify Sarawak’s Bumiputra communities.
Such seats therefore are a quite crucial component in the bewilderingly complex web of the state’s communal politics wherein no single community can claim an overall demographic majority.
Winning credible Bidayuh representation in PBB is therefore a strategic imperative for the party as it also provides a handy foil to check the overall numerical preponderance of Ibans, who are deeply divided.
This in turn affords Malays and Melanaus (whose own political unity may be tested after four decades of Melanau ascendancy ended in 2014 with the succession of the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem and now Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Openg as the state’s first and second Malay chief ministers) in PBB uninterrupted political pre-eminence in the party and the state government, since 1973.
Recall that the last time a serious political chasm occurred among non-PBB Ibans, one faction had attempted to join PBB but was rebuffed, probably because the Pesaka (Dayak) wing in PBB found a common cause with the non-Dayak Bumiputera wing to keep it out.
It presumably still suited the political interests of leaders of the Pesaka wing to play second fiddle to the party’s Bumiputera wing.
All the main players in the Sarawak political chessboard thus know well to play in such a delicately-balanced game wherein individual and seemingly insignificant cases, such as Dr Jerip’s are, in fact, key pieces in the jigsaw puzzle that is Sarawak politics.
The Sarawak election may well be something of a watershed as, for probably the very first time since the original Pesaka and Bumiputera parties merged to form PBB in 1973, the merged entity’s primacy faces unaccustomed challenges.
The ruling and opposing camps are on roughly equal footing as each has a government for back-up.
The resulting intense political competition merits official overseers and neutral observers ensuring it is also fair.
Further political realignments and other surprising turns are to be expected as the electoral battle looms.
Real competition — be it in the political or economic sphere — can only benefit the ordinary people it is designed to serve.
This is also perhaps a lasting gift that the advent of New Malaysia bequeathes.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times