For months, Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), the Sarawak-based multiracial component party of Barisan Nasional, has been talking about making drastic changes to its leadership to transform and prepare itself better for the next state elections.

But suddenly, it pulled the brakes on the proposed reformation earlier this week and things are still at status quo. Why?

That seems to be the most perplexing question playing on the minds of many political observers in Sarawak today.

Earlier this year, it was felt that the party, which was formed 49 years ago, had suddenly woken up from its slumber after its huge setback of losing seven state seats to the Opposition in 2006 state elections.

But what became mind-boggling was when the party central working committee (CWC) suddenly decided to retain its president, Tan Sri Dr George Chan Hong Nam, for another three years, just a few days before the party’s Triennial Delegates Conference (TDC) today.

“I don’t know why the status-quo was maintained. The party leadership should allow elections at the central leadership. If we continue like this, we would be certainly facing death in the next elections,” said SUPP vice-president Datuk Yong Khoon Seng.

Yong was among the leaders who had been vocal about the need to change within the party in order for SUPP to regain its lost ground.

Besides Yong, there are other leaders such as Engkilili branch chairman Toh Eng San, who even submitted a motion, calling on Dr Chan to step down as promised in 2006.

During the party’s Special Delegates Conference that year, Dr Chan announced that he would step down as party president at the TDC in 2008.

However, the party’s top leadership recently pledged unanimous support to back Chan, who is also Sarawak’s Deputy Chief Minister, to defend the president’s post at the TDC.

SUPP secretary-general Datuk Sim Kheng Hui said: “SUPP’s CWC has the right to recommend and I feel that the focus should be on rejuvenating the party, instead of who is to lead.”

He said some party delegates might not be happy with the decision but the focus of SUPP was now uniting its members as it was known to be saddled with internal strife for many years, to the extent of allegations that some members even sabotaged the party’s candidates in the last state elections.

Party insiders said that the party was divided into several groups centred in places like Kuching, Sibu and Miri.

Such regional factionalism had been there since the party was founded, they said.

But after the setback in the state elections in 2006, the once understated regionalism broke into open feuds, and even affected the chances of people who really want to serve the party.

A branch party leader who declined identification said even some of the top office-bearers in the party did not chime with one another because of the factionalism.

To this, Dr Chan does not deny that party treasury-general Datuk David Teng Lung Chi and assistant secretary-general Datuk Seri Wong Soon Koh do not see eye-to-eye.

“Both Teng and Wong don’t seem to want to compromise. If you allow elections at the central level, it would make matters worse,” he told Bernama.

And that was why he agreed to the CWC decision for him to stay put for at least another term, Dr Chan explained.

“However, we do allow elections at the Youth and Wanita sections. This is also part of the changes that we have promised,” he said.

Both Teng and Wong are said to be the front-runners for the party’s presidential post as they command substantial support from within the party.

A branch leader said if there were to be elections for the presidential post, it could split the party down the line as the supporters of these top office-bearers would fight all the way.

SUPP’s elections are conducted through a two-tier system, where party delegates will first elect 104 Central Committee (CC) members. Later, these CC members will decide on the party’s top leadership, including the party presidency.

However, some party members and leaders are still not convinced, claiming that the party had become “undemocratic” by not allowing elections at the central level and accused the party’s top leadership from backtracking from their earlier promise to change.

“You are talking about changes, yet you want to maintain the old guard. What is this? For me, the most important thing is to ensure that the party is still intact and united to face the state elections in 2011,” said another branch leader. Dr Chan, when asked about this, said the latest development did not mean that “we did not honour our pledge”.

“It was only due to the circumstances that we slowed it down a bit right now (on the proposed changes),” he said.

This opinion was shared by Sim, who said the party was actually making some changes by grooming the next generation of leaders as the current leaders had already passed the 60-year mark.

“I can’t give you the time frame for such changes in the top leadership. However, we are working towards this direction. The only thing is that in the current situation, due to many factors, we can’t have any drastic change at the central leadership. These leaders are not power crazy,” added Sim.

Whether this decision to maintain the status-quo at the central party leadership would augur well for SUPP at the next state elections, remains to be seen.

But one thing is certain: any party that fails to reform or make changes is at great risk in losing touch with new political realities and the electorate.