Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin waving to reporters before his Cabinet announcement in Putrajaya in a March file photo. Image: Agencies/AFP

SINGAPORE – Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s political alliance emerged victorious in closely contested elections in the state of Sabah on Saturday (September 26), an outcome that is likely to strengthen the premier’s position as he faces down an attempt by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to unseat his government.

Widely seen as a litmus test of Muhyiddin’s ability to keep parties aligned with his loose Perikatan Nasional (PN) governing coalition unified as an electorally cohesive bloc, the state elections were seen as a gauge of his personal popularity that will guide decisions as to when snap polls could be called.

Official results from the Election Commission of Malaysia showed that Muhyiddin’s informal Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) opposition alliance clinched a simple majority in the 73-seat state assembly with victories in 38 seats. Winning parties within the grouping, however, failed to reach a consensus on their chief ministerial candidate, leading to an impasse.

Muhyiddin, 73, who is president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu, had proposed Hajiji Mohd Noor, the party’s chief in Sabah, as GRS’ candidate for chief minister, while Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, president of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), insisted that the state’s next leader come from his party.

In the lead-up to nomination day, UMNO signaled that Sabah Barisan Nasional (BN) chief Bung Moktar Radin, who is seen by observers as close to disgraced former premier Najib Razak, was its presumptive chief minister candidate. Contestation within GRS over the issue saw the alliance turn to the state’s governor to broker a resolution.

Juhar Mahiruddin, Sabah’s ceremonial head of state, granted an audience to both BN’s and PN’s proffered candidates on Sunday (September 27) afternoon and he now holds the prerogative to determine who will helm the state government following the electoral defeat of the incumbent Warisan Plus coalition, helmed by caretaker chief minister Shafie Apdal.

After their meeting, the governor said he would need more time to make his decision, in effect prolonging the political stalemate, one which is emblematic of the difficulties facing Muhyiddin’s fragile PN coalition, which UMNO has aligned with for political expediency but refuses to formally join, giving rise to squabbling and internecine strife.

Observers say GRS’ failure to arrive at a consensus on a chief ministerial candidate has made the alliance vulnerable to a coup through political defections. With a slim two-seat majority, analysts do not rule out crossovers given the abiding political culture of party-hopping in Sabah, which could deprive GRS of its simple majority.

Parti Warisan Sabah (PWS) President Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal speaks during a 14th General Election (GE14) campaign series at Pakatan Harapan and PWS talk in Lintas Jaya Kepayan on May 5, 2018. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Shafiq Hashim

“Shafie could potentially pull off a deal and engineer a series of defections as he did in 2018,” said Piya Raj Sukhani, a political analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, in reference to horse-trading that ousted the then BN-led Sabah government in the immediate aftermath of Malaysia’s most recent general election.   

“Current circumstances are, however, less favorable for Shafie,” she added. Warisan Plus’ five-seat deficit in this election is larger than the two-seat deficit the state alliance faced in 2018. The alliance’s main component party was then part of the Pakatan Harapan-led (PH) federal government in 2018, whereas today it is in opposition at the federal level.

The Warisan Plus alliance – comprised of Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan), the United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation (UPKO), and three parties from PH – won 32 seats during Saturday’s state election. Independent candidates won the remaining three seats. Warisan’s chief Shafie, 62, meanwhile, has yet to concede defeat.

When pressed by reporters whether he would still attempt to form a state government, Shafie pointed to the fact that his party secured victory in 29 seats, by far the most of any single party. “We will observe how the situation progresses and also the process in terms of the political scene. The fact is Warisan is the biggest party,” he was quoted as saying on Sunday.

“Warisan has refused to concede defeat because they interpret Sabah’s state constitution as stipulating that the largest party, not an alliance, but the largest party is the one who can form a government,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Asia Research Institute.

Complicating matters for Shafie, who PH parties have publicly mulled as a contender to be the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate to the chagrin of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Anwar, is the fact that the three independents elected have reportedly lent their support to GRS, thereby further boosting its majority to 41 seats.

“Elections do not necessarily assure political stability in the state. Alliances may waver,” Sukhani told Asia Times. “But if the differing legal interpretations are resolved or disregarded…and GRS’s victory at the Sabah elections is assured, it will inflate Muhyiddin’s credentials and defend his position against Anwar’s challenge to unseat him.”

Anwar, whose party won just two of seven seats it contested in Sabah, boldly declared on September 23 that Muhyiddin’s government had fallen and that he had secured a “formidable” majority in the country’s 222-seat Parliament to form a new federal government. He has yet to reveal the names of lawmakers supporting him.

The PKR president has said he is waiting for an audience with Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, before divulging any further details about his leadership challenge. The Agong is currently undergoing medical observation in a hospital and will be unable to grant any meetings until early October, the palace has said.

Anwar Ibrahim waves as he leaves after a press conference at the People’s Justice Party headquarters in Petaling Jaya, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, on February 26, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Anwar, 73, had been scheduled to meet the king on September 22, though the appointment was canceled for reasons of ill health, which some observers privately see as suspect. Parliamentarians aligned to PN, including UMNO lawmakers, have denied support for Anwar, with some calling his declaration a ploy to win votes ahead of the Sabah polls.

Saturday’s victory for GRS “does indeed detract from Anwar’s quest to be prime minister and to unseat Muhyiddin, because his own party (PKR) did not perform well and the coalition to which his party is aligned to also lost the state election,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

During campaigning in Malaysia’s eastern-most state, Muhyiddin said on the hustings that a snap general election could be expedited if his alliance formed Sabah’s next government. “If we win in Sabah, we will hurry up and have the general election. I know what the media will write but let them speculate,” the premier was quoted as saying on September 18.

Muhyiddin “may view the state electoral win as a bellwether for national politics and assert confidence that the mandate of the people is convincingly in his favor,” said analyst Sukhani. “His second option is to renege on his word and decelerate the calls for snap polls under the pretense of the double whammy of the health and economic crisis.

“While this option would momentarily safeguard him, his premiership will be in jeopardy if he fails to secure a majority in Parliament to pass next year’s budget when it is debated in November. To pass any government bill, Muhyiddin depends on support from a dominant and disgruntled UMNO that has been clamoring for the general election,” she added.

Eyeing a return to federal power, analysts see UMNO leaders’ reluctance to rally around Muhyiddin as indicative that they likely believe they can win a general election on their own given the party’s pervasive grassroots influence and historic appeal to the Malay Muslim majority as a result of 61 years of uninterrupted rule prior to 2018.

Another key stumbling block for Muhyiddin’s Bersatu and UMNO are how seats would be allocated between them ahead of a general election. For the latter, ceding too much ground to its smaller rival would be seen as the tail wagging the dog. Both parties polled similarly at elections in Sabah, with UMNO capturing 14 seats and Bersatu securing 11 seats.

“I think Muhyiddin will now be more willing to go into a snap general election, because in any seat allocation negotiation with UMNO, he could use the Sabah example, where Bersatu and UMNO won an approximately comparable number of seats, to argue and more seats should be yielded for Bersatu to contest,” Oh added.

A total of 447 candidates stood to contest 73 state assembly seats over the weekend in what observers regard as one of the most hotly contested elections in Sabah’s history. In the constituency of Kukusan, for example, Warisan’s candidate won the seat by a margin of just 10 votes, potentially making it the narrowest win in Malaysian electoral history.

Muhyiddin’s pitch to voters in the vast state on the island of Borneo was that federal government funds would give a much-needed boost to the state’s development, with promises of aid, handouts and improved infrastructure. Sabahans would be better-taken care of under state government aligned with his administration, argued the premier.  

Voters wearing masks at a polling station in Sabah on September 26, 2020. Image: Facebook

Sloganizing an affectionate Malay language term for the word “father”, his campaign telegraphed a patriarchal relationship with the Malaysian public. Analysts observed that PN had attempted to capitalize on Muhyiddin’s popularity with regard to his government’s management of Covid-19 and distribution of financial aid amid the pandemic.

Campaigning took place with social distancing measures implemented for mass events and strict hygienic guidelines were adhered to on polling day. Sabah has experienced an uptick in Covid-19 infections in recent weeks, recording more than 900 positive cases with new clusters emerging prior to and amid the recently concluded state election.

Voter turnout was 66.6% according to Malaysia’s Election Commission, a lower-than-usual showing that analysts have attributed to Covid-19 fears and political fatigue. The weekend’s polls – the second time Sabahans voted for a state government since March 2018 – were triggered by an attempt to collapse Shafie’s administration through defections.

The 62-year-old Warisan chief campaigned on “unity” and multiculturalism, progressive messaging which observers say resonated beyond the state with voters and youth in Malaysia’s ethnically diverse urban areas. “We are here to build a nation, not a particular race or religion,” was one of the mottos that appeared on campaign posters.

In addition to championing state rights and calling for Sabahans to chart their own path, Warisan’s inclusive focus amounted to a rejection of federal politics focused on non-unified, ethnically-specific appeals to the voting public. GRS, however, managed to use the political hot potato of illegal immigration against Shafie to convincing effect.

Despite his popularity in the resource-rich state, Shafie’s inclusive stance failed to land with the state’s non-Muslim bumiputera communities: the indigenous Kadazan, Dusun and Murut ethnic groups referred to as “KDM” voters. Analysts see this demographic as having been swayed by GRS’ branding of Warisan as a “party of undocumented migrants.”

Shafie himself confronted allegations of being a foreigner of Philippine descent during the campaign, a claim he refuted by visiting the graves of his ancestors located in the eastern town of Semporna. An influx of Muslim refugees and other undocumented migrants from the southern Philippines has stoked unease among KDM communities in recent years.

Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional campaigned heavily in Sabah’s state poll. Image: Twitter.

“There is huge discontent over immigration linked to a long-standing rumor that Shafie over the last few years has been allowing a lot of illegal migrants in Sabah and trying to set up a bureaucratic pathway to give them Malaysian identity cards so they can vote,” said James Chin, inaugural director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute.

An alleged citizenship-for-votes scheme known as “Project IC” was a major scandal during Mahathir Mohamad’s first tenure as prime minister, which saw then BN chairman accused of arbitrarily granting citizenship to Muslim foreigners in Sabah in exchange for their votes and altering the demography of the state in the process.

“Over the years, there were a lot of these undocumented migrants who immigrated into Sabah,” said academic Oh. “But it was BN, in fact, who let these people into Sabah, and yet now BN has tried to pin the blame on Warisan and Shafie, and it would appear from the results that they successfully did so.”