SINGAPORE: By all accounts, the Barisan Nasional (BN) scored an unexpected victory in Sabah last Saturday (Jan 18), when it defeated its opponent the Sabah Heritage Party (Warisan), a close ally of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, in the Kimanis by-election.
There was no doubt it was hotly contested and both sides knew it so. Political giants from both the BN and Warisan-PH had visited Kimanis during the campaign period to canvass for votes on behalf of their party’s candidate.
Former Prime Minister Najib Razak visited Kimanis twice while Anwar Ibrahim spoke at an election rally which drew close to a thousand participants.
Shafie Apdal, Chief Minister of Sabah and President of Warisan, also personally led his party’s campaign during this by-election.
There was good reason for both sides to think so. A longtime seat of then UMNO heavyweight and Foreign Minister Anifah Aman since 2004, this battle for Kimanis erupted after an election court found electoral regularities at the last 2018 General Election and nullified the results.
Back then, Anifah had won, but by a sliver of 156 votes. He had won 47.7 per cent of the votes but his opponent Karim Bujang, the candidate for Warisan, was so very close at 47.1 per cent. An independent candidate secured the remaining 5.2 per cent.
The national swing against the BN coalition keenly felt all across Malaysia was heralded as the reason.
So it is that this election result held a similar mirror up to the ruling PH. Despite polling agencies predicting a victory for Warisan, UMNO Sabah candidate Mohamad Alamin defeated Karim in a straight fight with a win of 2,029 votes.
A SWING ACROSS ALL RACES
Compared to the 2018 General Election, according to official results, the BN experienced a 6.6 percentage points swing in last Saturday’s by-election.
This was felt across all races. The swing towards BN was almost identical in both Muslim bumiputera and Non-Muslim bumiputera polling districts, at an average of 6.43 and 6.27 percentage points respectively.
In addition, the vote share for BN in Muslim bumiputera polling districts closely matches those of Non-Muslim bumiputera polling districts for last Saturday’s by-election.
The Kimanis constituency, made of 19 polling districts, is 63 per cent Muslim bumiputera and 31 per cent non-Muslim bumiputera, with the remaining 6 per cent consisting of Chinese and others.
While voting patterns in Kimanis for Muslim bumiputera and non-Muslim bumiputera were arguably on different trajectories in the 2018 General Election, preliminary examinations of last Saturday’s by-election suggest the divergence has all but disappeared.
In the 2018 General Election, support for BN plummeted by an average of 15 percentage points in the seven Muslim bumiputera polling districts compared to 2013. Support for BN merely dipped by an average of 4 percentage points in the four non-Muslim bumiputera polling districts for the same period.
TEMPORARY PASS NOT AN ISSUE
One major issue raised during the election campaign was concerns over the Sabah Temporary Pass, which observers predicted would sway non-Muslim bumiputera voters away from Warisan.
When the Warisan-led Sabah state government announced last year the pass would be implemented in June this year and replace existing permits issued to long-staying foreigners, in particular illegal migrants and refugees, some experts highlighted this would go down poorly with the Kadazandusun community.
The BN did not shy away from campaigning on this issue fiercely. Sabah hosts a sizeable number of illegal migrants from southern Philippines and Indonesia. Many in the Kadazandusun community (who are generally non-Muslim) may have felt that these illegal migrants had inevitably tipped the demographic balance against their favour.
But the uniform swing across races suggest this pass did not gain sufficient traction among the Kadazandusun in last Saturday’s by-election.
CONCERNS OVER THE ECONOMY
It is more likely that the swing towards BN is a sign of dissatisfaction with the Warisan-led Sabah state government.
Despite being classified as a semi-urban constituency, Kimanis has not experienced significant developments in the past two decades save for the Membakut new township. Job opportunities outside of the agriculture sector remain scarce while local infrastructure, with poorly constructed roads and drains, leave a great deal to be desired.
The BN, in their election campaign, had framed the by-election as a “referendum” on the Warisan state government's performance by the Kimanis electorate. That might be the most accurate picture to take away from this by-election.
Going forward, the Warisan-led state government needs to relook its economic policies and how to translate these into tangible benefits for the livelihood of Sabahans.
Kevin Zhang is Research Associate in the Malaysia Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.