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Upcoming Polls in Malaysia’s Sabah State a Litmus Test for PM Muhyiddin

Muzliza Mustafa and Hadi Azmi
Kuala Lumpur
2020-09-24
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An election poster of Warisan Plus coalition President Shafie Apdal, which resembles a 2008 campaign poster of then U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, hangs in the windows of an eatery in Asia City, in Malaysia’s Sabah state, Sept. 16, 2020.
An election poster of Warisan Plus coalition President Shafie Apdal, which resembles a 2008 campaign poster of then U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, hangs in the windows of an eatery in Asia City, in Malaysia’s Sabah state, Sept. 16, 2020.
[BenarNews/Ryu Syakur]

A State Assembly election taking place in Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah region this weekend will be a barometer of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s popularity, but the stakes have risen dramatically through a last-minute challenge to his government’s standing from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, according to analysts.

Saturday’s polls in sparsely populated Sabah will be the first state-level election since Muyhiddin’s unelected Perikatan Nasional government came to power six months ago. Now, Anwar has shaken things up with his sudden claim this week that he has secured a “formidable” parliamentary majority to wrest power from the prime minister.

“It is very critical indeed to stamp his legitimacy as the Prime Minister if Anwar’s latest saga is taken into account,” Azmi Hassan, a retired professor and political analyst, told BenarNews.

“Because then Muhyiddin can be considered the legitimate prime minister, and more importantly, it will show that the Perikatan Nasional coalition is working.”

While campaigning in Sabah on Thursday ahead of the local polls, the prime minister expressed confidence that the state-level Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) coalition, which is aligned with his government, could win big on Saturday although his ruling bloc is clinging to a razor-thin majority in Parliament.

“Tonight is a historic and important night in the campaign trail for the Sabah state election. I am impressed and proud with your presence,” the prime minister told a rally, according to the government-run Bernama news agency.

“This is an early signal that there will be a landslide victory for GRS. We have to be confident. This is the chance given in our parliamentary democracy system where the direction of the state is now in the hands of the people of Sabah.

Last week, Muhyiddin categorically said that if the coalition aligned with Perikatan Nasional did well in the Sabah polls, he would “quickly” hold a general election in the hopes of getting a favorable result that would legitimize his leadership. GRS, which leads the opposition in Sabah, is trying to defeat the incumbent Warisan Plus coalition, which is aligned with Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) bloc.

But now, analysts said, Muhyiddin must also reckon with Anwar’s bold announcement at a press conference on Wednesday that he has a “clear and indisputable support” of a majority among the 222-member Parliament to establish a new government and bring about Muyhiddin’s fall as PM. However, Anwar declined to release a list showing how many seats his side controls in the legislature.

On Wednesday, Muhyiddin dismissed Anwar’s claim.

“Until proven otherwise, the Perikatan Nasional government remains strong and I am the legitimate Prime Minister,” Muhyiddin said in a statement to the media.

According to another analyst, the bloc aligned with Muhyiddin in Sabah needs to win by a wide margin on Saturday so the PM can consolidate support within his Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition.

“Anything less than a proper win would lead to an even further erosion within Muhyiddin’s coalition, especially amongst members who are on the fence,” Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, a senior associate at political consultancy firm Vriens & Partners, told the Reuters news agency.

The players

In Sabah, the main contenders in the upcoming polls are the incumbent Warisan Plus and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS), which includes Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional.

The Sabah election was triggered after some Warisan lawmakers pledged their allegiance to the opposition GRS, prompting Chief Minister Shafie Apdal to dissolve the 73-seat State Assembly on July 30.

At the national level, Anwar’s Pakatan bloc has 91 seats in parliament, which means he is currently 21 short of 112 seats needed to form a majority. On Wednesday, when he claimed he had majority support, he declined to give numbers but said close to two-thirds of MPs were supporting his bid to be prime minister, Reuters reported.

The Anwar effect

The Sabah election’s outcome will affect how parties that support Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional react to Anwar’s bid to become prime minister, said analyst Azmi and Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Muhyiddin’s coalition has been propped up by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has been displeased with the Prime Minister, Oh said.

Currently Muhyiddin’s political party Bersatu has 31 seats in parliament, while UMNO has 39.

After Anwar’s announcement on Wednesday, UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said he was told that many of his party’s lawmakers as well as members of parliament from the Barisan Nasional coalition, that UMNO anchors, were supporting Anwar’s bid.

Hamidi said he “respects” these lawmakers’ stand and UMNO would “not stop its members of parliament who decide to support Anwar Ibrahim.”

Azmi said if Bersatu fared much better than its ally, UMNO, in Sabah, then UMNO members of parliament would think twice before withdrawing their support from Muhyiddin.

Oh, meanwhile, sees the UMNO lawmakers’ purported support for Anwar as a tactical move.

“UMNO would like to use Anwar as leverage against Muhyiddin, whom they have been seething about for not totally toeing their line like a lackey should,” Oh said.

It is important for Muhyiddin to do well indirectly through Saturday’s state polls in Sabah so he can assert his control over UMNO and Barisan Nasional, the analyst added.

The UMNO factor

UMNO, the party of disgraced former leader Najib Razak, has been distancing itself from Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional since Najib’s conviction in July on corruption charges in a case linked to the 1MDB financial scandal.

The party has already started making noises about wanting to contest in all the seats it ran for in the 2018 general elections, in the next national election in 2023.

Muhyiddin would want to avoid both parties contesting the same seats and that’s another reason why the Sabah results will matter to Muhyiddin, political analyst Azmi said.

A good showing in Sabah by Muhyiddin’s own Bersatu party will enable him to assert himself over UMNO and the Barisan Nasional coalition that is anchored by UMNO, he said.

Bersatu and UMNO tangled over seat allocation in Sabah as well. There, Bersatu is contesting 19 seats while UMNO is running its candidates in 31.

In the run-up to campaigning for the state assembly polls, the two parties also openly disagreed on who should be chief minister candidate in the state if they beat the Warisan Plus coalition.

Hajiji Noor, from the Bersatu party, is the best that the Perikatan Nasional coalition “can offer as candidate to lead Sabah,” Muhyiddin told voters earlier this month.

UMNO’s Zahid countered saying the Sabah chief minister would “only be selected by the Sabah Barisan Nasional and [only] when we have enough seats to form the state government.”

Despite this posturing, UMNO and Barisan Nasional have also been insisting that they are merely working together with Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional.

“Muhyiddin’s grand coalition, Perikatan Nasional (PN), needs to do really well compared to Barisan Nasional so that PN, or more precisely, Bersatu, will have leverage when seat negotiation for the 15th General Election comes into play,” Azmi said, referring to the 2023 election.

“If Bersatu wins big in Sabah, and UMNO doesn’t fare well, then this Sabah effect will, of course, affect the national political scenario.”

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