Commentary: Sabah state election ignites fresh Game of Thrones jostling in Malaysian politics
Sabahans will go to the polls on Saturday (Sep 26) to determine their state government but what’s at stake are questions over national-level politics, says Oh Ei Sun.
KOTA KINABALU: “We are here to build a nation, not a particular race or religion,” a slogan boldly emblazoned across billboards at many major traffic junctions in Kota Kinabalu declares.
These bold words are seen next to Obamaesque portraits of Shafie Apdal, the caretaker Sabah chief minister leading his Warisan Plus coalition into another state election, barely two years after the historic 14th General Elections.
And indeed, the outcome of the upcoming Sabah state polls will determine much, not only for the resource-rich and multicultural state – potentially reshaping the political landscape of the nation as a whole.
The larger political game played out on the national stage has already made itself felt since the onset of this untimely election season in Sabah.
A BIG SURPRISE – FOR MUSA
After all, we would do well to remember Shafie certainly did not go out of his way to call for the state polls, especially not during this COVID-19 pandemic in Sabah.
It was in part imposed upon him by his predecessor and erstwhile main political rival, Musa Aman, the former chief minister for 15 years, who saw it fit to flip some 13 state assemblypersons from Shafie’s camp to claim majority support for him to unseat Shafie in late July.
Musa’s almost triumphal return to chief ministership was foiled by Shafie who was left with few viable choices except to advise the Sabah governor to dissolve the state assembly, thus paving the way for the current state polls.
Hence, Musa found himself outfoxed. From an advantageous perch of political surprise, he now finds himself in a pretty awkward predicament and has himself to blame.
Musa reportedly did not even involve the state leadership of UMNO, the previous federal and state ruling party to which he still belongs, in his attempted power grab. And now UMNO central leadership has passed over him in choosing Bung Mokhtar, a parliamentarian more renowned for his rough antics within and outside of parliament, to lead the UMNO state party into the impending electoral battle.
In fact, Musa was not even put forth as an election candidate when UMNO listed its picks.
Yet Musa has been making his rounds during the campaign period, mainly rooting, curiously, not for his old party UMNO, but for candidates from Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Bersatu party.
Then again, most of Musa’s previous state UMNO faction supporters, including his own parliamentarian son Yemeni Aman, are now in Bersatu. But it’s 2020 and the dynamics between the fresh Sabah opposition coalition is awkward to say the least, if only because of the brewing rivalry between UMNO and Bersatu.
THE POWER STRUGGLE WITHIN THE FEDERAL RULING COALITION
Since Muhyiddin assumed the premiership in coalition with UMNO in early March, UMNO has been assiduous in trying to marginalise Muhyiddin’s leadership. It wants its own leaders to achieve primacy over the ruling coalition as is befitting UMNO’s status as the component party with the largest number of parliamentarians.
Muhyiddin, on the other hand, has been carefully building up Bersatu’s parliamentary numbers and gradually consolidating his power base. Bersatu is almost on par with UMNO. It is an open secret that UMNO is in locked horns with Bersatu in battling for the pole position in the ruling coalition.
This internecine power struggle between the two major component parties of the federal ruling coalition filters down to Sabah. UMNO and Bersatu were ready to go at each other’s throats in many state constituencies, diffused only by the last minute mediation of Muhyiddin, who hastily cobbled the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN) and the Bersatu-led Perikatan Nasional into a Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS).
Muhyiddin also backed Bersatu’s state chief Hajiji Noor for Sabah’s next chief minister should GRS win the election, only to be refuted by UMNO’s president Zahid Hamidi who called for the focus to be on winning the election first.
Muhyiddin would ideally like to see a huge GRS win in Sabah, but with his Bersatu significantly outperforming UMNO. This would help solidify his federal leadership position.
Muhyiddin’s carefully cultivated fatherly image has been consistently employed as a counter-narrative in Sabah to counter Shafie’s considerable appeal.
Should Muhyiddin’s gamble pay off, a win would help suppress UMNO’s mounting pressure for him to call for federal snap polls.
Conversely, UMNO would like to see an UMNO-dominant win for GRS, to build on the momentum of frustration against the old Pakatan Harapan (PH) and further force Muhyiddin’s hand for federal snap polls.
In UMNO’s calculation, its close collaboration with the Islamist PAS party will enable it to scoop up even more seats than it currently has after the 2018 general election.
READ: Commentary: Malaysia’s political centre has shifted but national leaders are still searching for it
THE POLITICS WITHIN THE FEDERAL OPPOSITION
Then there is the politics on the Sabah incumbency side.
At first glance, Shafie’s Warisan Plus coalition appears to thrive on his relentless “Unite We Must” message, riding on a wave of popular disgust both at the recent crossing over of the assemblypersons as well as, more generally, at BN’s longstanding divide-and-rule, racially charged tactics in multicultural Sabah.
But Warisan Plus also includes PKR, federally led by Anwar Ibrahim who has fought relentlessly over more than two decades to become prime minister, but who has also been repeatedly thwarted by former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who had declined to give a definitive timetable for his handover of the top position to Anwar.
The Sabah state election has brought to the fore longstanding acrimony, where observers have attributed Dr Mahathir’s disdain for Anwar in the former’s letting the then PH administration break apart earlier this year.
Dr Mahathir had previously thrown his weight behind Shafie as the opposition’s choice for prime minister in June, instantaneously creating political enmity between Anwar and Shafie.
This intramural discord at the national level has trickled down to Sabah. Although PKR only won two seats in the last Sabah state election, it initially wanted to field more than 25 candidates, even at the cost of multi-cornered fights with its coalition partner Warisan.
The federal PKR leaders only relented the night before nomination day to review this approach to contest merely seven seats.
Indeed, Anwar would ideally like to see a Warisan Plus win in Sabah, but not such a big win (such as a two-third majority of seats) that Shafie’s already quite larger-than-life personality appeal and electoral credentials would be cemented.
Anwar would not want to see Shafie propelled into the national limelight. Anwar is already preoccupied with yet another attempt to wrest national power back from Muhyiddin, and a potential Shafie launch at the premiership, buoyed by a huge win in Sabah, would be a huge distraction.
READ: Anwar claims parliamentary majority: What are the potential implications for Malaysia’s political scene?
On Shafie’s part, his political sojourn remains first and foremost in Sabah. Although Shafie served for many years in the federal government and was one of UMNO’s three vice presidents, it was never a secret that above all else he aspired to defeat Musa to ultimately become chief minister of Sabah.
He even demurred to the prospect of a premiership backed by Dr Mahathir, and never actually “accepted” the nomination, preferring instead to focus on running Sabah over the last two years.
The enthusiasm for Shafie’s national potential was largely a Mahathir construct which caught popular fire among the more progressive, somewhat wishful groups of supporters yearning for a clear break from racially charged politics.
Still, Anwar can ill-afford to not take seriously any political move from Dr Mahathir. Therein planted the seeds for discontent at both the national and state levels.
STATE LEVEL ISSUES WILL LIKELY DETERMINE THE ELECTIONS
The faceoff between Warisan Plus and GRS will likely focus on several interrelated issues. Chief among these is the demand for and preservation of Sabah’s special rights under the 1963 Malaysia Agreement, which many Sabahans feel have been largely neglected or diluted over the last half century.
State rights feature front and center as the first item in both sides’ election manifestos. Both coalitions have also fashioned themselves as defenders of such rights.
A second election issue is Sabah’s dire developmental needs, in particular its critical lag in infrastructure ranging from paved roads to Internet access, as was recently highlighted by the sad tale of a university student having to sit for her online examination by climbing up trees to get better internet connection in her home village.
In these regards, GRS appeals that Sabah voters should elect a state ruling coalition aligned with its national counterpart to enable federal funds to be channeled more expeditiously into Sabah have been attractive.
Shafie’s retort that a Warisan Plus state administration could work in good faith on a government-to-government basis with its federal counterpart has tried to debunk this claim, but to moderate avail.
The Sabah state election has become a testbed not only for the electoral strengths of both sides of the grand political divide, but also for the cohesiveness of the respective coalitions, which has proven fragile due to competing interests of their component parties.
One thing is for sure: How Sabah votes could reshape Malaysia’s national politics.
Oh Ei Sun is a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.