A state victory despite disunity in the ranks . . .
In the Malaysian state of Sabah’s election on Saturday, the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) coalition backed by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his Perikatan Nasional (PN) government won 38 out of the possible 73 seats in the state legislature, a simple majority. Despite GRS’s internal discord, particularly between its two major members – the state’s United Malay National Alliance (UMNO) and the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) – the coalition was able to leverage the influence of two Sabah-based parties with proven records of upholding cultural identities and defending local interests at the federal level. The rival coalition, Warisan Plus, which previously held power in the state government, still managed to win 32 seats, with independent candidates winning the remaining three.
State of Sabah voted for development . . .
GRS’s success is a combination of Sabah voting patterns determined by personal connection to candidates and ethnic loyalties, and PM Muhyiddin’s popularity based on his successful country-wide response to COVID-19. The election results also reflect local discontent with the performance of the reformist Warisan government elected in 2018. Although topics of illegal immigrants and Sabah’s desire to regain greater administrative rights within the Federation of Malaysia – as per the 1963 Malaysia Agreement (MA63) – were major election issues, it was the matter economic growth and basic infrastructure improvement in the state that most affected people’s voting decisions, particularly for rural residents. Muhyiddin’s in-person campaign supporting GRS and promises to assist in Sabah’s development ultimately proved successful in swaying voters.
Complicated coalition politics still in play . . .
Despite Sabah’s polls, Muhyiddin’s prime ministerial seat remains delicately poised, given the uneasy partnership within PN between Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party and UMNO; and strong federal opposition lead by Anwar Ibrahim, who last week claimed to have a majority in the national parliament. Discontent over GRS’s choice of Chief Minister for Sabah – the state’s Bersatu member Hajiji Mohd Noor over UMNO’s preferred candidate – may not only push disgruntled UMNO members in Sabah to defect from GRS, but also to switch to Anwar’s opposition side federally, eroding PN’s already thin parliamentary majority. Political uncertainty remains, with the next battle between Anwar and Muhyiddin to be decided by shifting party allegiances and, if need be, the King.