KOTA KINABALU, Sept 26 — The 1.12 million voters in Sabah who go to the polls today have to navigate quite a few “issues” in order to participate in one of the most eventful state election in recent years.
Voters had to overcome a huge wave of apathy following a party-hopping failed power coup which triggered the election.
Then there is the lagging economy and increasing health risks following several new Covid-19 clusters in Sabah and finally, the weather as imminent thunderstorms threaten to land in certain areas.
In the fight for 73 seats, a record 447 candidates have thrown their hats in the ring, but analysts say the fight is really between the two main coalitions: the state-led Warisan Plus government and the hastily cobbled together seven-party loose alliance which calls itself Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS).
Most analysts and surveys have Warisan at an advantage, but not by much. It is expected to retain most of its seats but a huge grey area of Barisan Nasional (BN) strongholds and non-Muslim Bumiputera majority seats hang in the balance and will decide the final outcome.
Warisan supporters are optimistically hoping for a two-thirds majority to prevent an unstable government and potential party-hopping but are realistically expecting a comfortable margin of some 40 to 46 seats.
Pundits say both Warisan and the GRS opposition already have some 18 to 22 seats in the bag, while the remaining seats could go either way, including a popular independent candidate.
Which way those votes swing depends on several factors:
The Shafie factor
Caretaker chief minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal has been leading the Warisan campaign, as he did in the Kimanis and Sandakan by-elections, and is its main face with a simple consistent message throughout.
The Senallang incumbent is confident and rarely calls on federal leaders in his campaigns and rallies, where he speaks to Sabahans’ strong patriotism with a clarion call to chart their own path.
His “Unity” campaign is about embracing all races, along with a not-so-subtle message to reject federal politics.
Shafie has touted inclusive policies, earning popularity among the east coast Muslim Bumiputeras, as well as in urban areas and even among the Chinese communities.
His challenge has been fending off continued allegations of harbouring illegal immigrants (this includes allegations that he is of Philippine descent himself), inability to revive the economy and bring development to the state.
His rivals are BN’s Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin, Perikatan Nasional’s (PN) Datuk Hajiji Mohd Noor and to a certain extent the unseen hands of former chief minister Tan Sri Musa Aman who is backing several candidates in his continued quest to take Shafie down.
Tomorrow we will see whether Shafie’s leadership has earned the respect and trust of all communities.
Split votes in KDM seats
By far the toughest crowd Shafie has had to face is the Kadazandusun and Murut (KDM), or non-Muslim Bumiputera communities. Those in the interior area of Keningau and Tambunan have complained of being sidelined and overlooked as the original natives of Sabah are rapidly being overtaken by so-called Muslim races.
They believe that Shafie is pro-immigrants and is unable to rid the state of illegal immigrants.
This time, some 25 seats are believed to be of KDM majority, and most of them will be hard fought, splitting any big majorities. In 17 clashes between the GRS opposition, almost all have significant KDM bases.
Splits, especially between many opposition crowds, usually favour the government but in this case, they could take away potential Warisan votes.
Shafie should be able to capitalise on the huge opposition field but many feel that his candidates are not formidable enough among the KDM community.
Federal state relations
The crux of the opposition argument is that the state needs the federal government’s funds and delivery system to give it the much needed boost to develop.
They have harped on Sabah’s poor economy and promised more aid and handouts and projects that only the federal government can deliver.
Without federal co-operation, the state just does not have enough funds to properly recover from the current slump.
Many have been sold on this argument but a recent shock announcement by PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim insisting he has parliamentary majority has thrown a spanner into the works and casts doubts as to who will be the next prime minister in the near future.
Despite Anwar’s claims being unverified, it has rocked Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and the PN’s biggest draw.
Shafie has also countered this argument by saying that if the federal government gave the state its dues and increased oil royalty or a cut of its revenue, the state would be in much better financial standing.
He has also said that it’s the BN’s fault that the state remains underdeveloped after decades of their rule.
Despite federal politics not usually being a factor on the ground, those in the know doubt PN can really deliver on its promises after this announcement.
Seats to watch
Sabah’s politics has never lacked colour and this election is no different.
Most of Sabah’s political party leaders are expected to win their seats with no major problems.
Shafie, Hajiji, Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin, and STAR’s Datuk Jeffrey Kitingan should win easily.
Upko’s Datuk Madius Tangau is facing a tough fight with PBS’s popular Datuk Joniston Bangkuai in Kiulu, former Foreign Minister and Parti Cinta Sabah president Datuk Anifah Amin is also at risk in Bongawan while PKR’s Datuk Christina Liew may lose her big majority in her nine-corner fight in Api Api.
MCA’s Lu Yen Tung, LDP president Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat and USNO de facto leader Tan Sri Pandikar Amin may be in trouble in the Kapayan, Inanam and Pintasan seats.
Other seats to watch include the KDM seat of Paginatan in Ranau, where the nine cornered fight includes the three partner-rivals of GRS.
Another is Tambunan, where Kitingan is trying to hold fort in the PBS stronghold where he won marginally due to a split vote problem in GE14. PBS has promised to pull out of the race but its symbol will still be on the ballot today.
This election will also be a litmus test for Muhyiddin whose post as prime minister is being tested following Anwar’s claim which comes at the worst possible time.
Sabah has become a yardstick for his leadership and whether Sabah will vote along state loyalties or federal power.