The stage was set when Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin hinted on the campaign trail that he may call for an early general election if the 16th Sabah state election goes the way of Perikatan Nasional.
He told voters in Sabah that a positive vote for the Perikatan alliance could decide the future of the political landscape in the country.
PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim threw a spanner in the works when he claimed on Wednesday that he had a majority in Parliament, adding that he was seeking an audience with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to be declared prime minister.
Umno president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said he was aware that many MPs from his party and others in the Barisan Nasional coalition were backing Anwar, and that he respected and supported their stand.
While these developments have yet to seep in to the ground in Sabah, they have upped the ante in an already intense election campaign, where there are no signs of an outright winner.
Even the sudden surge in Covid-19 cases has not dampened the spirit of Sabahans who want to have their say.
Election and political observers expect a voter turnout of between 65% and 75%, despite the fact that they are heading back to the ballotbox barely 28 months after the last state election held in conjunction with the 14th general election.
A total of 1,124,598 registered voters are expected to cast their ballots for a record 447 candidates from 17 parties and Independents vying for 73 seats in the snap election called by caretaker chief minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal following an abortive bid by his predecessor Tan Sri Musa Aman to topple his government through defections.
Despite the wide array of choices, the key battle will be centred on the two main alliances, the incumbent Warisan Plus – comprising Parti Warisan Sabah, Upko, DAP, PKR and Amanah – and its challenger, Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS).
GRS comprises Sabah Barisan Nasional (Sabah Umno, Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah or PBRS, and Sabah MCA), Sabah Perikatan (Sabah Bersatu and Sabah Progressive Party or SAPP, Sabah STAR and PAS), and Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS).
DAP and Amanah are contesting under the Warisan symbol while PKR and (for the first time) Upko will contest under their own logos, while the opposition alliance’s Barisan, Perikatan and PBS will contest under their respective logos.
Shafie’s Warisan Plus has campaigned for unity and the need for a strong mandate to push state rights under the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), while Muhyiddin – also the Perikatan chairman – said there was a need for the federal and state governments to be aligned for development and progress to take place in Sabah.
Emergent in the game is a rebranded Parti Cinta Sabah led by former foreign minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman, whose party has fielded candidates in all 73 seats.
Another former Umno leader, Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia, is leading the United Sabah National Organisation (Usno) that bears the name of the original independence party led by the late Tun Mustapha Harun who dissolved it to allow Umno’s entry to Sabah in 1991. Usno is contesting 47 seats.
Another old hand, former chief minister Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat, is also trying to make a comeback through his Liberal Democratic Party that is contesting 46 seats.
Pundits do see key leaders – Shafie who is defending Senallang, Sabah Bersatu chairman Datuk Hajiji Noor who is defending Sulaman and Sabah Barisan’s Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin in Lamag – winning their seats easily.
However, Upko president Datuk Wilfred Madius Tangau is in an uphill battle for Kiulu against PBS’ two-term assemblyman Datuk Joniston Bangkuai.
Other leaders in close fights include Sabah MCA chairman Lu Yen Tung, who is attempting to unseat Jennie Lasimbang (Warisan-DAP) for the Kapayan seat in a seven-cornered contest.
Sabah PKR chairman Datuk Christina Liew is also expected to be in a close fight in a 10-cornered battle to defend her Api-Api seat.
Pundits are watching closely the performances of Anifah in Bongowan, Pandikar in Pintasan and some Independents backed by mainstream opposition parties who could spring a surprise or two.
GRS’ Sabah Barisan, Sabah STAR and PBS are clashing with each other in 17 seats, particularly in the non-Muslim bumiputra seats of the Kadazandusun, Murut and Rungus areas, making those seats especially hard to call for analysts.
However, local political analyst Raheezal Shah said these multi-cornered fights are where surprise winners could appear.
In the previous state election, nine of the seats Barisan won, six that ended up in Warisan’s hands and two with Sabah STAR came about because the vote was split between major contending parties or personalities.
“This is why many are having difficulty trying to analyse what the outcome would be in certain seats,” said Raheezal.
There are 26 seats with six-cornered fights and 13 seven-cornered fights, while the largest is the 11-cornered battle in Bengkoka and Api-Api’s 10-cornered fray.
There are no straight fights in this election.
While most analysts prefer not to make an outright prediction, they give a slight edge to Warisan Plus.
Sabahans are keeping their cards close to their chests.
With the results expected to trickle in only from 10pm, the question remains: Will the state see another hung assembly as it did in the May 2018 polls?
Or will there be a clear winner and an end to the incessant politicking that has been going on since that hung assembly of 2018?