IN-FIGHTING among Opposition parties for seats has been overshadowed by how the Feb 9 Sulu intrusion will impact voting patterns in Sabah.
Although observers believe that the "fixed deposit" status of Sabah for Barisan Nasional would remain, concerns are growing over the east coast seats, especially the Suluk-Bajau majority ones around Lahad Datu, Semporna and Kunak.
Barisan candidates will have to work much harder to convince the migrant ethnic voters on why a stable and united government is important for the security of the state.
With security utmost in the minds of the people, even urban or semi-urban seats once considered black or grey to the ruling government could shift back to Barisan, particularly with the business community now finding "solace" with the coalition.
The prospects for the parliamentary seats of Kota Kinabalu, Tawau and Sandakan are looking brighter for the ruling coalition, affirming the "fixed deposit" tag.
Kota Kinabalu and Tawau are now in the hands of the Opposition, while Sandakan was won by Barisan with a razor-thin margin.
Sabah Barisan withstood the March 2008 tsunami, delivering 24 of the 25 parliamentary and 59 of the 60 state seats.
Within Pakatan Rakyat, the DAP and PKR contested against each other after failing to cut a deal. Among the Opposition parties, it was only the DAP which saw victory, winning the Kota Kinabalu parliamentary seat and the state seat of Sri Tanjung.
Sabah Barisan, which was led by Datuk Seri Musa Aman, chalked a landslide.
By September 2008, however, Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) pulled out with its two MPs (Sepanggar and Tawau) together with two state assemblymen (Likas and Luyang). But two other assemblymen (Elopura and Tanjung Papat) opted to stay put with Barisan by joining Gerakan.
Datuk Seri Lajim Ukim of Umno and Datuk Wilfred Bumburing of Upko left Barisan to align themselves with Pakatan, raising the political heat in Sabah late last year.
Furthermore, their entry into Pakatan was not entirely welcomed by Pakatan leaders in Sabah.
Pakatan, the SAPP led by former chief minister Datuk Yong Teck Lee and the Sabah chapter of State Reform Party (STAR) headed by Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan have shown no signs of a deal for a one-on-one contest against Barisan.
Yong's SAPP wants to contest more state seats while giving way to Pakatan for the parliamentary seats. STAR, on its part, wants Pakatan to leave Sabah entirely to local parties. Pakatan is not interested in such demands. Even the SAPP and STAR themselves are also unable to work out a seat-sharing formula.
As the Sulu crisis continues to linger in the minds of the people, Sabah parties are slowly getting back into the political groove with a clearer indication that the Opposition has agreed to disagree, opening a free-for-all fight against Barisan.
The Opposition's game plan augurs well for the eight-member Sabah Barisan. Some observers believe they can pull off a repeat of 2008.
Local issues and choice of candidates are likely to be key topics for the ruling coalition.
Musa heads Sabah Umno, which is set to defend all its Muslim bumiputra seats (32 state and 12 parliamentary seats). It will focus on taking back Beaufort after Lajim quit the party.
The party is maintaining a tight lid on possible new faces.
However, Kinabatangan MP Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin and Kalabakan MP Datuk Abdul Ghapur Salleh are among the estimated 20% who are speculated to be dropped to make way for new faces.
Taking the fight into the political hotbed of the Kadazandusun and Murut areas will be Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) led by Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan who is the Kadazandusun Huguan Siou (paramount leader), Upko president Tan Sri Bernard Dompok and Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah president (PBRS) Tan Sri Joseph Kurup.
Talk is rife that Pairin is likely to give up one of his two seats (Keningau parliamentary and Tambunan state seats).
Kurup may be retiring in favour of a new face. There has been talk that his son might contest.
For the Chinese seats, Gerakan which was nearly wiped out in the peninsula, has shot into the limelight with the party holding three state seats and two state Cabinet posts in Sabah with the defections of SAPP members.
Sabah Gerakan together with Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) led by Datuk V.K. Liew, Sabah MCA's Datuk Edward Khoo and PBS' Datuk Yee Moh Chai will face an uphill battle to win over the urban voters.
All Barisan parties are lobbying to contest the six seats (two parliamentary and four state seats) formerly allocated to the SAPP. To date, Barisan has yet to announce how the six seats will be allocated.
At one stage, the urban Chinese-majority seats were considered lost for Barisan. But with the DAP and SAPP unable to see eye-to-eye, Opposition votes could be split and the incumbents could pull through, albeit narrowly.
The hot seats to watch out for are:
1. Penampang The parliamentary constituency which has the largest Catholic population is set to test the popularity of incumbent Dompok, who has pushed for key issues about illegal immigrants and mission schools;
2. Pensiangan Kurup, a survivor of Sabah politics, is likely to have a tough time to defend the seat which he won after he was returned uncontested in a controversial Nomination Day decision;
3. Keningau Will it be Round 2 for the feuding Kitingan brothers? If Pairin decides to defend the seat, he will face off with his politically estranged younger brother Dr Jeffrey. In their previous battle, Pairin retained the seat with a 4,264-vote majority;
4. Sandakan LDP's Liew will be facing stiff challenge in this Opposition-inclined seat which he won by a mere 176-vote majority against the DAP;
5. Beaufort This parliamentary seat will be the focus of Umno's onslaught as Lajim remains a popular figure in the constituency where the two state seats of Klias and Kuala Penyu currently held by Barisan might be at stake due to Lajim's clout; and
6. Kota Kinabalu A three-way tussle is on the cards for this seat where Barisan is hoping to slip through with a win as home-grown Opposition party SAPP (barring a last-minute compromise) takes on the DAP.
As for Musa who has broken the jinx of Sabah chief ministers not lasting more than nine years he is set to keep the ruling coalition in control of the state and deliver more than two-thirds of the 25 parliamentary seats.
A big win will also ensure Musa's position within Umno and Barisan.
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