PARTI Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) is the indispensable backbone of the Sarawak Barisan Nasional (BN). Since it was formed out of the merger of two parties (Pesaka and Bumiputera) in 1973, it has led the Sarawak government without interruption ever since, providing four of the state’s six chief ministers since 1963.
If anything, the party appears to have grown from strength to strength, despite a serious political crisis led by the late Tun Abdul Rahman Ya’kub in the mid-1980’s that almost toppled his successor, Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud, then chief minister. Since then, the state has been mercifully free from the very fragmented politics that was perhaps a reflection of its fragmented population plaguing it back in the 1960’s. The almost boring ensuing political predictability has fostered a general sense of complacency amongst the people who seem to take political stability (never guaranteed, much less an inevitability) for granted.
PBB is politically indispensable because with 39 of the 82 seats in the current Sarawak Assembly, it is just three seats short of an absolute majority to let it govern entirely on its own. No one seriously doubts the party can do this if that is what it really wants. But, the current state of parties within the state governing coalition is deliberately designed this way, to at least give a semblance that PBB believes in political collegiality within the four-party Sarawak BN.
PBB may now be a single party but both Pesaka (representing non-Muslim Dayaks) and Bumiputera (composed of Malays and both Muslim and non-Muslim Melanaus) still retain parallel leadership structures within the merged entity. Members from the Pesaka wing may only vie for leadership positions within that wing and the same goes for the Bumiputera wing.
There is, however, a gentlemen’s agreement of sorts that should the party presidency be filled by a leader from the Bumiputera wing, the party secretary-general must be from the Pesaka wing. With the exception of Rahman (who was the first PBB secretary-general), all three chief ministers following after him have been concurrently PBB presidents.
The secret of PBB’s political durability and success therefore hinges on a most exquisite balancing act that seeks to accommodate the political aspirations and ambitions of individual leaders within its dual leadership structure. Such political give-and-take has stood the test of time (four and a half decades) and weathered three transitions at the apex of state and party leadership.
That balancing act will be much on display this weekend at the PBB convention when upcoming leaders are picked and endorsed. The top-most leaders have been agreed upon by way of a consensus hammered out behind closed doors that avoided any open contests for the posts. Posts at levels of vice presidents and below will be open for contests. This opens a rare window into the inner workings of PBB and the leadership style of Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Abdul Rahman Zohari Abang Openg. He will need to play this balancing act as adroitly and skilfully as his PBB predecessors had, since the party’s continued political pre-eminence is dependent on it remaining coherent, effective and retaining its hard-won unity of purpose.
An undisputed pre-eminent leadership position in the state for PBB naturally also comes with uncommon responsibility for the party to always be seen to be fair and even magnanimous to its junior partners in the Sarawak BN. The same political give-and-take prevailing within PBB must also be fully extended within the Sarawak BN. The state coalition’s cohesiveness has been tested in recent years as a result of fielding “party-less” candidates on a BN ticket (direct BN candidates) in the last state election.
In the coming general election, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has agreed to Abdul Rahman Zohari’s resolution to field such candidates because of the problems plaguing some of the Sarawak BN parties. Such a resolution is not likely to be easy, but, with firm political resolve from the very top of the state leadership, it should be achievable. Once the PBB convention is out of the way, Abdul Rahman Zohari should have a freer hand to come to grips with these nettlesome political challenges faced by the coalition he leads.
Popular support for PBB and Sarawak BN currently remains fairly solid. This shows continued appreciation for the political stability the state has enjoyed almost uninterrupted since 1970. It is incumbent upon the state political leadership to ensure this stays.
John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak.