COMMENT | As Sabah’s leaders work to resolve the elite impasse on who will lead the state and form a coalition government, analyses of the election results have begun.
This article lays out a preliminary analysis of voting by the main ethnic groups in Saturday’s election. It is the first of two pieces on the election. The findings show that the drop in turnout was significant, especially among traditional Warisan Plus supporters. Ethnic swings, however, were comparatively more modest, but also worked against Warisan Plus.
Ethnicity played a role in splitting the vote, particularly tapping into ethnic loyalties at the local level. The pattern of engagement along ethnicity follows a uniquely Sabah pattern, but broader trends of polarisation and disengagement are emerging.
Let me begin the piece with four methodological notes. First, this analysis is preliminary, as it uses macro results at the seat level as opposed to micro polling station results - which are not yet available.
Second, it is a narrow analysis. As my earlier analysis of GE14 voting in Sabah argued, it is necessary to look at voting from multiple social cleavages - generation, gender and class, as well as ethnicity.
These other social cleavages are important not only in understanding the complexity of Sabah society, they allow us to understand how different strategies in campaigns work (or do not work). The dominant ethnic framing of voting behaviour needs to be complemented with the study of other features of Malaysian society.
Third, ethnic labels in Sabah are oversimplified. Given Sabah’s ethnic diversity, the larger groups such as Dusun, for example, obscure important ethnic differences within communities. The ‘Other’ category is especially problematic, as it includes many different communities, such as Bugis and indigenous communities such as Orang Sungai, as well as some of the immigrant communities such as Bisaya. This category includes a third of the electorate.
Finally, methodologically, it is valuable to combine statistical work with fieldwork as interviews provide the context to understand the drivers of the shifts that occurred. Surveys after the election are also another important research method. This piece combines macro statistical trends with voter interviews, including on election day. The statistical findings should be understood as estimates.
Huge drop in turnout
With the Election Commission reporting a turnout of 66.6 percent, a drop of 11 percent at the state level from 77 percent in GE14. Turnout was decisive in shaping the Sabah 2020 outcome. Every vote did count literally, with three of the contests won with less than one percent of the vote (Kukusan, Pintasan and Karambunai) and another six seats won with less than five percent of the vote (12 percent of overall seats in the contest).
Looking at the estimates of voter turnout, there are two overall trends. Voter turnout dropped across ethnic communities. Many outstation voters did not come back. Second, there were differences among communities, with those supporting Warisan Plus in GE14 reporting the most significant drop in turnout.
Chinese voter turnout dropped a whopping 16 percent. This followed the smaller ‘other’ minority communities, notably Bugis, at 14 percent, and Bajau-Suluk at 13 percent. Kadazan-Dusun and Murut (KDM) communities also experienced a drop in voter turnout by nine percent and eight percent respectively. These low figures among Warisan traditional supporters help us understand why predictions of Warisan victory were overestimated.
The results show the negative impact of Covid-19 on voting, which disproportionately was a concern among Chinese voters. We also see the effects of elite defection and greater cynicism among voters over issues such as ‘frogging’ and ‘government’ announcements.
What is also clear is that Warisan Plus’s campaign did not mobilise its GE14 supporters to the same degree in this campaign, compared to GE14. Warisan Plus parties lacked strong machinery, especially in rural areas, and were not able to bring their voters out operationally. This was in part shaped by a lack of resources spent on the ground, as many voters cannot afford to get to the polling stations, a number of which are far from where they live, including in some cases requiring an expensive boat ride.
At the same time, the ‘mood’ this time was not as strong - the ‘political wind’ did not have the same force as before. This was inevitably a challenge when one is the incumbent during an economic downturn. Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) parties were able to better portray themselves as ‘change’, especially Bersatu, which campaigned under Perikatan Nasional (PN).
It is important to appreciate that there was disappointment among some Warisan Plus supporters in terms of inadequate deliverables by the Warisan government. Indeed, many GE14 supporters stayed home.
Changes in support by ethnicity
Sabah’s polls were highly competitive, with a large number of parties, independents and, in the case of GRS, alliance partners competing among themselves. PN infighting numerically only negatively affected GRS in Melalap, as the alliance lost this seat.
There were changes in party allegiances within PN - Star for example - but the focus below is on support for the three main groups – Warisan Plus, GRS and ‘Others’.
Along with the main ethnic groups, there are important changes in support. The trends differ from trajectories in Peninsular Malaysia, due to the important role of independents, local personalities and other factors, as well as the state’s greater ethnic complexity.
Sabah has its own ethnic narratives, involving issues such as tensions over illegal immigration. It is important not to impose the ‘Malay versus non-Malay’ as well as ‘Muslim versus non-Muslim’ paradigms as they do not reflect the complex realities in Sabah.
The view that Muhyiddin Yassin is a ‘Malay government’ and thus pulled Malay support is too simplistic and, given the differences among Malay communities, inaccurate. Similarly, the view that Warisan Plus represented non-Muslims is wrong, as it and BN/PN/GRS had multi-ethnic support across communities. The ‘us versus them’ binary paradigm is not appropriate to understand Sabah ethnic voting.
The trends reinforce some of the earlier turnout findings and point to important ethnic differences among the main groups. Chinese support among those who voted remained strongly in favour of Warisan Plus, estimated at 94 percent. This is, in fact, a modest increase and accounts for the large majorities in seats such as Kapayan and Luyang. Keep in mind also these seats are in urban areas, with a larger number of voters. Chinese Sabahans unhappy with Warisan Plus opted to stay home, rather than vote against them.
Kadazan-Dusun support for Warisan Plus stayed the same as GE14 at an estimated 27 percent. Post-election social media has been full of reports of KDM changing their vote and unfairly targeted this community for Warisan’s loss. KDM continue to be suspicious of Warisan Plus due to the illegal immigrant issues, tied to long-standing ethnic suspicions involving disempowerment and displacement.
The 2020 story is the consistency of the KDM remaining with BN, now in GRS. The majority of Kadazan-Dusun voted for GRS, estimated 56 percent, with the remainder voting for independents or other smaller parties, estimated 17 percent. PBS and Star both gained seats in the KDM areas.
Murut communities, usually more rural and in some cases considerably poorer, voted more for Warisan Plus, at an estimated 32 percent. Less than a majority, an estimated 44 percent voted for GRS, with a larger share voting for independents/smaller parties, 24 percent. Warisan Plus, however, lost an estimated four percent of Murut support, a modest shift. Money and personality made a difference in many of these contests, such as Nabawan and Sook.
The KDM stayed put in the BN/GRS fold, speaking to a lack of trust in Warisan. Upko was punished for leaving BN to join Warisan in 2018 - it only won one seat.
The biggest ethnic drop in support for Warisan Plus along ethnic lines involved smaller minorities, notably Bugis. Support among ‘Others’ dropped by an estimated 10 percent, as support was divided among the various options. As many independent and smaller parties fielded candidates from smaller ethnic minorities, this pattern is understandable.
Warisan Plus also lost support among its core ethnic base, Bajau-Suluk, which is in keeping with the turnout drop noted for the community, above an estimated five percent. This reflects the high expectation members of this community had for Warisan, and some disappointment in lack of deliverables.
Warisan, however, retained a majority of their support, estimated at 55 percent. The Bajau-Suluk community varies across Sabah (land and sea communities), and Warisan’s support among this community is concentrated in the east coast, Bajau Laut.
Contrary to trends in Peninsular Malaysia, changes in Malay support were modest, only an estimated three percent of Malays changed their vote. They swung away from BN/PN/GRS parties towards Warisan Plus, in contrast to the narrative in the peninsula. Malays were quite split, with only 50 percent supporting GRS. This reflects ethnic differences within the Malay community and the level of competition Warisan Plus fielded in Malay areas.
Divide and mobilise: Local ethnic splitting
What complicates the Sabah political landscape is the important role of sub-ethnicities and their mobilisation. This dynamic made a difference in many of the seats, as local ethnic splitting by the smaller parties and independent candidates affected the outcome.
In the seat of Sindumin in the town Sipatang, for example, Warisan and Umno fielded candidates from the majority Kedayan community, Warisan won the seats by 424 votes. Independent candidates and smaller parties from the Lumbayan community captured 504 votes, essentially giving Warisan the advantage in this seat.
In Kuala Penyu, also on the west coast, the Malay independent candidate, former civil servant Mohd Fadzlee Lee Abdullah @ Chun Lee, captured a third of the vote, cutting into Upko’s chances. The seat was secured by incumbent Limus Jury of Bersatu, a double jumper who relied heavily on mobilising the Bisaya vote in the area. The use of money to bring out the vote gave Bersatu a secure win.
Divide and mobilise was a common pattern in localities, where local identities remain important in Sabah’s diverse ethnic mosaic.
These patterns - local ethnic division and mobilisation, high Chinese support for Warisan Plus, no change in KDM support (except a modest drop by Muruts), drop in ‘Others’ and Bajau-Suluk for Warisan and gain among Malays - show that Sabah communities follow their own path.
In the peninsula, Pakatan Harapan lost support among Chinese. This was not the case in Sabah for Warisan Plus in terms of voting but was reflected in turnout. Also in the peninsula, PN/BN has been picking up Malay support, while in Sabah, Malays remain divided. Ethnic swings in voting in the Sabah election were considerably smaller than the shifts in turnout.
The story of voting in this election may be one of consistency, as Sabah’s electorate is evenly divided. Both GRS and Warisan Plus won 43 percent of the popular vote, with Warisan Plus slightly more than GRS. This polarised division among voters of GE14 continues.
At the same time, the story is also one of locality, as local ethnic loyalties and splitting of the vote shaped outcomes. This was reinforced by strong personal ties to candidates, also shaped in part by ethnic loyalties. This has long been a pattern in Sabah, but in this election, the mobilisation of these local loyalties was decisive, a pattern that largely favoured GRS.
The Sabah outcome points to the need to look at the local factors and the need to reassess voting behaviour more broadly. Personal networks within communities and other social cleavages beyond ethnicity also shape the electoral outcome.
A preliminary study of the results shows that Sabah’s polls ethnically do not conform to national trends. They are uniquely Sabahan.
At the same time, Sabah’s results reflect the national picture. Of all the trends, Sabah’s sizeable turnout drop may, in fact, be creating a new overall trend, especially if national elections are called soon during the Covid-19 pandemic. This will disadvantage parties that do not have the machinery and rely on mobilising the ‘political mood’. More voters are not happy with any of the current alternatives as greater disengagement with politics is emerging.
Malaysia’s electorate, like that of Sabah, is seriously divided and polarised. Warisan Plus and GRS supporters continue to hold onto different visions for Sabah and for Malaysia. The impasse at the elite level extends into Malaysian society as a whole, making it a difficult pattern to shift moving forward.
BRIDGET WELSH is a Senior Research Associate at the Hu Fu Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies and a Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Centre. She currently is an Honorary Research Associate of the University of Nottingham, Malaysia's Asia Research Institute (Unari) based in Kuala Lumpur. She tweets at @dririshsea.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.