Waiting for word from Taib

Sarawak’s Chief Minister has been an oasis of calm amid speculation over the polls date.

TAN Sri Taib Mahmud has been getting the headlines in recent months.

Part of it has to do with the fact that all eyes are on when the Chief Minister will call the Sarawak elections. He is really stretching it with only four months to go before his legislative term expires.

Election fever is already in the air in Kuching where the political bigwigs have homes and the word is that Taib is inspired to call for polls as early as next month.

Every word he utters is being scrutinised and analysed. When he flew to Kuala Lumpur on Monday afternoon, the Kuching grapevine claimed he had gone to see the Prime Minister about the dissolution of the State Legislative Assembly.

The other reason for the attention being showered on Taib is his stunning new wife Puan Sri Ragad Waleed Alkurdi.

She has been the centre of attention wherever she goes. Taib has been taking her to the various divisions in Sarawak and people crane their necks for a glimpse and talk endlessly about her afterwards.

She is an exotic beauty with her milky skin, jet-black tresses and full figure. But it is her confidence and poise that stand out. For someone who grew up in the Middle East, she has adapted remarkably well to her new environment, almost as though she was born to be where she is today.

Sarawak journalists say that having a young and beautiful woman by his side has helped boost Taib’s image, or to put it in contemporary terms, the marriage has “sexed up” his image.

Taib, who will be 75 in May, is about to step up to the most challenging election in his 30 years at the top. The coming elections will not be as dangerous for him as the Ming Court affair in 1987 in the sense that he is not about to be toppled.

But as Sarawak’s most well-known journalist Datuk Seri Azman Ujang put it, Taib will be “taking on the most organised opposition” in Sarawak history.

The DAP, PKR and SNAP are trying to reach a consensus on seats to have as many one-to-one contests as possible. It will be a new ball game for Sarawak politics if they succeed in working out the seats. But it will be uphill because every Tom, Dick and Harry politician in Sarawak thinks he or she deserves a shot at electoral fame.

The opposition parties have also stopped talking about toppling Taib. They know that is impossible.

“This election is not about toppling Taib, that has to happen internally. The point is not about winning power but about making more gains,” said state DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong.

But the big issue is land and it will strike a chord with all ethnic groups, from the Dayak and the Bidayuh to the urban-based Chinese.

The Chinese in the towns have been griping over their land leases and premiums whereas the rural ethnic groups are concerned about the loss of indigenous lands. Taib, it is said, is expected to announce some major concessions on land issues.

Taib’s strength lies in the rural areas where PBB, the party he leads, continues to hold sway. In the outback and longhouses, he is still held up as some kind of benevolent modern-day Raja, a Muslim leader who is genuinely tolerant of other faiths and cultures.

The local money is on a March election because the school holidays from March 12 to 20 will free the premises for polling purposes.

Political analysts have been offering all sorts of calendar markers in attempting to second-guess Taib. Some say the State Assembly will only be dissolved after the Barisan Nasional Convention on March 5 that will be hosted by Sarawak. But political insiders say May 26, the anniversary of Taib’s 30th year in power, will be an important date to watch out for – not to celebrate but to avoid.

The idea of celebrating Taib’s three decades in power was not a good one to begin with, especially after what happened in Egypt where Hosni Mubarak was overthrown after almost 30 years in power.

Given that, Taib may prefer the polls to take place before March 26 so that his opponents would have no opportunity to host their version of a day of rage or day of departure. And if he does well, he can proceed to celebrate his 30th year as Chief Minister in grand style.

One reason why the question of Taib stepping down is so inconceivable to his Barisan colleague is because there is no clear successor. Those around him are terrified there will be a power tussle if he goes and they are unified in wanting him to lead in the coming election.

Taib’s contemporary Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was one of the few people to call a spade a spade. He cautioned Taib not to get caught in a Mubarak kind of situation and to name his successor so that Sarawak would not be left with a leadership vacuum.

At some level, Taib knows he has stayed too long and he would want to have control over his legacy. But only he knows how he wants to go about it.

He is still extremely powerful despite his bout with cancer and the continuous sniping from his political opponents. He controls the PBB with an iron fist.

Said one Kuching professional: “If he says one, nobody would dare say two. That is how powerful he is.”

Taib has been an oasis of calm amid speculation over the polls date. Sarawak politicians say that is because he knows he is going to win again. And no one, not even his opponents, is about to disagree.

The only question is whether he will do better or worse than in 2006.


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