KUALA LUMPUR: Sabah’s state election has shaped up to be a free-for-all, with multi-cornered contests in each of the Bornean state’s 73 seats.
Election Commission (EC) chairman Abdul Ghani Salleh announced that a total of 447 candidates from 16 parties, including 56 independents, are standing in this election, with voting to be held next Saturday (Sep 26).
Certain constituencies have stood out as hot seats, either due to the names contesting, or in the case of Bengkoka and Inanam, thanks to the number of candidates standing. The former has 11 while the latter has 10.
The political developments at the federal level, beginning with February’s “Sheraton Move”, the fall of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government and the installation of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government led by Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia's (Bersatu) Muhyiddin Yassin, have also spilt into Sabah and led to the September polls.
After former state chief minister Musa Aman’s total acquittal and discharge of 46 criminal charges involving corruption and money laundering, he announced on Jul 29 that he had a simple majority to form a new multiparty government for the state, and would seek an audience with the Sabah's head of state Juhar Mahiruddin.
However, the Sabah governor consented to dissolve the Sabah state assembly after incumbent Chief Minister Shafie Apdal met with him on the morning of Jul 30, pre-empting Mr Musa’s attempted takeover and thus setting the stage for this Sep 26.
Sabah's political scene has always been a crowded affair. For this state election, there are three political forces to watch out for, including the incumbent Warisan+ alliance, state opposition alliance Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) made up of PN, Barisan Nasional (BN) and other state-based parties, as well as the indigenous Parti Cinta Sabah (PCS).
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FEDERAL INCUMBENTS, STATE OPPOSITION
Political parties which found themselves on opposite sides two years ago are now together within a Venn diagram of coalitions, with PN, BN and Muafakat Nasional (MN) working to win this state election.
These include Bersatu, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP), as well as former and current BN partners such as Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) and Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku (STAR).
This opposition alliance, which holds power at the federal level, does not exactly go into the polls at a disadvantage.
Political analyst and senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Oh Ei Sun noted that as federal incumbents, the GRS alliance is able to channel a lot of resources into the fight.
“UMNO still retains a large level of support (in Sabah),” he said. The party, which formerly led the Malaysian federal government, had a history of 30 years’ presence in Sabah.
Nonetheless, the federal coalition is plagued by some disadvantages, including infighting that has made headlines even before nomination.
“There seems to be a lot of infighting between UMNO and Bersatu, PBS and other Kadazan parties, that’s the main drawback,” Dr Oh noted.
As it was, Sabah Bersatu and BN were supposed to hold a joint announcement to introduce their candidates on Sep 10, but this event was abandoned.
Instead, Sabah BN handed out its candidates' list later that day. It left out the main architect for the polls - Mr Musa - and fielded another former Sabah chief minister and former federal minister Salleh Said Keruak as one of the candidates.
Both Bersatu and BN leaders have also openly sparred on the choice of the chief minister candidate.
Likewise, two local parties in the PN alliance - STAR and PBS - are at loggerheads, facing off in six seats.
STAR leader and deputy federal minister Jeffrey Kitingan had earlier announced they would pull out of PN if not given 15 seats to contest. He backed down later after being given eight seats to contest, while PBS took the rest.
However, it has emerged that a number of independent candidates contesting in seats where PBS is also standing are reportedly backed by STAR or aligned with it, as reported by MalayMail on Sep 13.
INCUMBENT ADVANTAGE FOR WARISAN+
Branded Warisan+, this bloc comprises the state-focused Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan) led by Mr Shafie in an alliance with fellow state-based United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation (UPKO) and PH national parties Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah).
There has also been infighting, though not as obvious as Bersatu-BN, manifesting itself in the form of seat allocations between Warisan and PKR, which is led by Mr Anwar Ibrahim.
In their Sep 10 announcement of candidates, Mr Shafie announced that its DAP and Amanah allies would be contesting uder Warisan's ship logo, while UPKO and PKR would use their respective party logos.
“I think for the ruling (state) coalition, the main advantage is that they are the incumbents, and Shafie is a charismatic figure,” Dr Oh said.
He added that there was resentment by the Sabahan populace towards the “political frogs” - state assemblymen who had party-hopped and seen as the main cause of the Warisan+ government’s downfall.
“Over the last two years of Warisan rule, it would appear that there is at least less corruption in the government,” he added.
Besides infighting, however, Dr Oh added that Mr Shafie had also been painted by BN as having opened Sabah to illegal immigrants while conveniently forgetting the fact that it was the former ruling coalition that has been instrumental in initiating the entrance of foreigners to the state.
“This has taken a toll for Warisan in the KDM seats,” he added, referring to the seats dominated by voters of the Kadazan, Dusun and Murut descents.
PARTI CINTA SABAH ALLIANCE
Led by former federal minister for foreign affairs Anifah Aman, PCS has emerged as a “third force” in state politics, fielding one candidate each for all 73 state.
Political science lecturer Mohammed Raheezal Shah Abdul Karim explained that there were only a number of well-known state politicians contesting under PCS, such as Mr Ansari Abdullah who previously led PKR in Sabah.
“Apart from them, most are not widely known to most Sabahans. They might be well-known figures within their own constituencies or communities, but I can only speculate,” the lecturer from Universiti Teknologi Mara Sabah said.
Apart from Warisan, other Sabah-based parties are dominated by certain ethnic groups, Mr Mohammed Raheezal said. As such, Mr Anifah is trying to project his party as more balanced, or plural in terms of ethnic composition, he added.
“Plus, unlike other Sabah-based parties including Warisan which only contest in selective constituencies, Anifah is trying to send a bold statement by fielding candidates in all seats,” he explained.
Basically, PCS, along with other fringe parties in the fray, were hoping to emulate the same achievement as Dr Jeffrey’s STAR in the last election, Mr Mohammed Raheezal said.
“In 2018, STAR contested 18 seats and managed to secure two due to split votes. Post-2018, this has given other smaller parties motivation that the days of single party, or single coalition dominance is over,” he told CNA.
“Looking at STAR, it gives them a new hope that it might be possible to win one or two seats, even if it’s only by one majority vote, and be the kingmaker,” he said.
WIN, BUT DON'T WIN "TOO BIG"
In both GRS and Warisan+, Dr Oh pointed out that each side had partners who hoped that the leading party would not win too comfortably.
“There is a lot of infighting on both sides of the political divide, in Sabah and nationally. On the GRS side, it appears UMNO and Bersatu are tussling to gain supremacy and the prime ministership, and that’s playing out in Sabah,” he explained.
Mr Muhyiddin, Dr Oh explained, would like to see both Bersatu and UMNO win, but not “too big” for the latter, as this would embolden UMNO even more and eclipse Bersatu.
“A huge UMNO win would hasten UMNO’s demand for a general election as soon as possible,” he pointed out.
On the other side was a passive, but potent conflict between Mr Shafie and Mr Anwar, as initially, PKR had intended to run in some of the seats Warisan is also eyeing.
“Anwar would like to see Shafie win too, but not too big a margin either. A Shafie win would potentially propel him to compete for the prime ministership, a seat which Anwar has coveted for so many years,” Dr Oh said.