By Hadi Azmi
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyddin Yassin and parties allied with his ruling bloc scored a crucial victory Saturday in state polls in Sabah that were viewed as a referendum on the popularity of his nearly seven-month-old unelected government.
The state-level Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) coalition, which includes Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition and other allies, captured 38 of the 73 seats in the state legislature to win back control of it from the Warisan Plus bloc, which took 32 seats, the Election Commission said.
“We have won thirty-eight seats in Sabah, which enables us to form the state government. It shows that people in Sabah have confidence in our candidates. I give my full commitment that the new government that will be formed will get full support from the federal government,” Muhyiddin said in a brief statement from Kuala Lumpur that was broadcast on national television, minutes after the Election Commission released the Sabah poll results after midnight.
Sixty-six percent of registered voters turned out for the vote in Sabah, one of two states that make up Malaysian Borneo, with 749,083 locals casting ballots in person, or through early voting or voting by mail, the commission said. Those who showed up at the polls Saturday wore face masks, which officials had required as a safeguard against the spread of the novel coronavirus disease.
The 17 seats in the state legislature won by the prime minister’s Perikatan coalition, however, were only three more than the number won by Barisan Nasional, a GRS member that has had a tense alliance with Muhyiddin as the main partner with his government at the national level.
Muhyiddin and GRS pulled off the narrow victory despite a last-minute challenge this week to his government’s standing by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. At a press conference on Sept. 23, Anwar declared he had secured a “formidable” parliamentary majority to topple Muhyiddin’s government, which has been clinging to a razor-thin advantage in the national legislature since coming to power in early March.
Anwar declined to show reporters a list of MPs whose backing he claimed to have. He is waiting for an audience with the king to persuade the monarch to appoint him as the new prime minister, but King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah has been hospitalized.
Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) won two seats in Saturday’s election, while Warisan, the Sabah-based party, secured the lion’s share of seats – 29.
“We won twenty-nine seats. It is an honor that we get to form a group of people’s representatives in the state legislative,” Shafie Apdal, the head of the Sabah-based Warisan party, told reporters outside his home early Sunday (local time).
He had led the state as its chief minister until late July, when he dissolved the State Assembly and called for elections after some lawmakers from his party defected to GRS.
“I will not forget the trust and confidence given by the people to us and we will strive despite the political instability in our country and our home state, Sabah,” Shafie said.
Meanwhile for the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party that anchors Barisan Nasional, Saturday’s win in Sabah marked the its eighth overall electoral victory at the state or parliamentary level since it was routed in an historic general election in May 2018. The government of the Pakatan Harapan alliance, which was elected then on a progressive platform, collapsed in late February over infighting.
Anwar today is leader of Pakatan, which, as a result of Saturday’s loss in Sabah, now controls only three out of Malaysia’s 13 states. Pakatan commands a majority in state legislatures in Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan.
‘An indirect referendum’
Sabah and neighboring Sarawak, sparsely populated states both rich in natural resources including timber and oil, are considered as potentially pivotal in national elections because, together, they comprise 56 seats, or 25 percent, of seats in Parliament.
A week before the polls in Sabah – the first contest where a state legislature was up for grabs under his government – Muhyiddin indicated that if his side performed well in the election, he would “quickly” hold early elections in the hope of winning a mandate from the Malaysian people.
Analysts had said that an electoral loss for Muhyiddin in Sabah could spell disaster for his government.
“This is the first state-wide election since the creation of Muhyiddin’s government in March. In a way, it is an indirect referendum on whether the people are happy with the formation of the backdoor (unelected) government,” James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania, told the Associated Press before poll results came out in Sabah.
Bridget Welsh, a researcher at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, had described the Sabah polls as Muhyiddin’s “first electoral test,” telling AP earlier in the day that his performance would “shape whether he remains in office.”
After GRS won by a margin of six votes over Warisan Plus, Welsh observed that the prime minister had “secured enough of a strong performance to strengthen his legitimacy.”