KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - During the 12th General Election in 2008, Malaysia's opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) contested in 11 seats in Sarawak and won zero.
"It was rock bottom for Sarawak PKR. But it never deterred us. We were used to maintaining the struggle with minimum resources," recalled a Sarawak PKR insider.
That perseverance was rewarded. In GE13 in 2013, the party established a foothold in the Land of the Hornbills (Sarawak)when it won the Miri parliamentary seat.
In GE14 ,2018, PKR quadrupled its parliamentary seats in Sarawak when it won Miri, Puncak Borneo, Saratok and Selangau.
It also increased the number of MPs from Sarawak when independent MPs, Larry Sng of Julau and Jugah Muyang, joined the party.
The Sarawak PKR insider acknowledged that his party's high point in Sarawak was due to the national ABU (Anything But Umno) sentiment. But he said that his party's Sarawakian leaders were also responsible for its success in the state.
"We were fighting for justice, and not one of them at that point could be associated with money politics or having any political baggage. The atmosphere was pure, and the public could relate to it," he said.
Political analyst James Chin, who is director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, noted that PKR's success in Sarawak was part of the national wave against Barisan Nasional.
When asked about the then Sarawak PKR chief Baru Bian's contribution to the success, Mr Chin said the Orang Ulu politician had strong support from the church and Dayak community.
"He was seen as a hero. And within the Dayak community, as a lawyer who took many native customary rights cases, " said Mr Chin, a Sarawakian.
Universiti Malaya sociopolitics professor Awang Azman Awang Pawi said there were other reasons PKR won those four seats in Sarawak in GE14, pointing to the split in SUPP (a Barisan component party) in Miri, internal fights in PBB (another Barisan component party) in Puncak Borneo, PKR grassroots support and a disunited Barisan in Saratok and Selangau.
The PKR insider contended that the first sign of trouble for Sarawak PKR came during its party elections in 2018.
"After (Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim) secured the presidency uncontested, he refused to work with his elected deputy president (Datuk Seri Azmin Ali) and insisted on having his own line-up at the national level, " he said, referring to the bitter and divisive Team Azmin vs Team Rafizi Ramli fight - Mr Anwar supported the latter in PKR polls.
"This had a very negative effect on Kuala Lumpur (PKR headquarters) and Sarawak PKR's relationship, as Anwar's handpicked men in the state only listened to him. Whatever idea the Sarawak state leadership council (headed by Baru and controlled by his men) had would be quickly vetoed," he said.
The Team Azmin vs Team Rafizi fight also divided Sarawak PKR. A majority of the leaders and MP were with Baru, who was with Team Azmin, while Team Rafizi was backed by Julau MP Sng and Miri MP Dr Michael Teo.
"It was effectively divide and rule," the Sarawak PKR insider said.
"Sarawak PKR leaders (who were not with the party president) knew that the party's promise that Sarawak PKR was autonomous was not honoured when their decision not to hold a state convention was not respected by KL (PKR headquarters)."
The Sarawak PKR divide reached its peak when the pro-Team Rafizi Julau PKR division suddenly gained a suspiciously high number of members (which spiked from 603 on June 26 to 13,000).
"The dynamics of the PKR president's support for Julau could not to be ignored. PKR headquarters never took action against the Julau PKR division," he said.
According to the Sarawak PKR insider, the disconnect between PKR headquarters and Sarawak PKR became a massive chasm when party president Mr Anwar pursued his eighth Prime Minister dream.
"Everything took a backseat to the PM8 agenda, including the Sarawak agenda," he said, referring to Baru's fight for better opportunities and provision of education and healthcare facilities in Sarawak and attempts to use the Sarawak Wealth Fund to ensure better development and wealth distribution among all Sarawakians.
Now, from six MPs from Sarawak, PKR has only one left, the Miri MP. The rest have quit the party to join Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) or became independents.
Why did PKR Sarawak implode?
"The Sarawak PKR disintegration is because Azmin had a stranglehold on Sarawak PKR, as his faction controlled the state through Baru. So when Azmin moved (to join Bersatu), they followed him," said Mr Chin.
Saratok MP Datuk Ali Biju and Puncak Borneo MP Datuk Willie Mongin joined Bersatu while Julau MP Sng and Lubok Antu Jugah became pro-Perikatan Nasional independents. Selangau MP Baru joined local opposition party PSB.
The PKR insider believes that Mr Anwar cannot avoid some responsibility for the mess in Sarawak PKR that has developed over the past year or so.
"As party president, the buck ultimately stops with him, and he needs to take ownership of all things PKR - the good, as well as the bad," he said.
"He took a perfectly functioning and strong state chapter, wrecked it inside out with the appointment of the parallel leadership team of Sng and Teo and destroyed the entire machinery built from the ground up with the blood and sweat of genuine members."
Today, according to the Sarawak PKR insider, with the defection of the man Mr Anwar had entrusted with shaking up the state team, Sng, Sarawak PKR is "in complete disarray - rudderless, clueless and most of all extremely unmotivated," he said.
"The gentlemanly thing for Anwar to do is to extend a sincere apology to Baru. It will not bring Baru back to PKR, but at least it would be a good start to peacemaking."
Will PKR do better or worse in the state in GE15?
According to Prof Awang Azman, Sarawak PKR's future lies in its younger leaders who are professionals, activists and emerged from the grassroots.
"If the PKR central leadership ignores them, the party will perform badly in GE15.
"The Sarawak PKR leadership has been neglected because of the competition between Azmin and (former PKR president) Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail," said Prof Awang Azman, a Sarawakian.
Mr Chin argued that Sarawak PKR's performance in the GE15 would depend on its leadership.
"Right now, they have none, and they have a short time to get ready. GE15 is actually on a backburner as they are preparing for the Sarawak polls, which is seen as a more important political contest," he said.
"There is a real possibility that if they can't get the machinery together, can't find a leader, they will be wiped out in the Sarawak polls."
History might repeat itself for Sarawak PKR in GE15 - it might hit rock bottom again.
The writer is a columnist with The Star. The Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.