Rumbling from the Sabah state election

Sabah effect: The Sabah state election might be over but its repercussions are ongoing and are reaching out to the peninsula. — ZULAZHAR SHEBLEE/The Star

WHEN it was clear that Warisan Plus had lost the Sabah state election, the phones of leaders from the victorious Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) started to the ring with overtures. Leaders from the losing alliance were calling politicians from the other side of the political divide to entice them to jump.

Warisan Plus wanted to repeat the way it formed the Sabah government in May 2018.

This is what happened then: Two days after Tan Sri Musa Aman formed the Barisan Nasional government, six assemblymen from Umno and Upko jumped to Warisan Plus. Their “frogging” triggered the collapse of the Barisan government and Parti Warisan Sabah president Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal was sworn in as the chief minister. (This is still in dispute in the Federal Court.)

Last Saturday, GRS won 38 of the Sabah state assembly’s 73 seats and pro GRS independents grabbed three.

Here’s a reminder of which parties make up GRS and Warisan Plus: GRS comprises Perikatan Nasional (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, Sabah STAR and SAPP), Barisan (Umno, MCA and PBRS) and PBS. Warisan Plus comprises Warisan, Pakatan Harapan (DAP, PKR and Amanah) and Upko.

One of the best offers from Warisan Plus was to a president of a GRS party: A politician called the president and offered him the chief minister post in a Warisan Plus coalition government. The president, who put the call in speaker mode so that others could listen, declined the tempting overture.

No savvy politician would fall for such a temptation.

GRS leaders would have learnt from the Upko lesson. The party ditched Barisan to support the formation of the Warisan Plus government. In the Sabah polls, voters – especially those from the Kadazan, Dusun and Murut (KDM) communities – punished it for its perceived betrayal. Upko lost in all but one of the 12 seats it contested.

Previously, Warisan Plus could sustain its coup as it was aligned to the Federal Government headed by Pakatan Harapan chairman, then Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Its Sabah government collapsed in July after the fall of the Pakatan government in February.

A Warisan Plus coalition together with one GRS party would not survive under the present Federal Government under the – albeit wobbly – Perikatan Nasional alliance.

When some Warisan Plus assemblymen – all formerly from Barisan except for two from PKR and one from DAP – switched sides to a Musa-led government in July, Shafie’s government collapsed. The Parti Warisan Sabah president then took a gamble and got the Sabah Yang DiPertua Negeri, Tun Juhar Mahiruddin, to consent to the dissolution of the state assembly so state polls could be called.

Shafie’s gamble failed to save his government. He lost the state polls during a Covid-19 pandemic. How did Warisan Plus – which many pro-opposition political observers in Peninsular Malaysia expected to win by a landslide – lose?

The early indication during my political tourism journey in my home state was that it would be a close fight between Warisan Plus and GRS.

On nomination day, Sept 12, when asked for my prediction of the outcome of the polls, I answered: “50/50 with small parties and bebas (independents) to tip the balance in favour of GRS.”

Three independents won. But no small party got a seat. Usno almost made it – former Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia nearly won the new seat of Pintasan, losing by just 84 votes.

Two days before the Sept 26 polling day, there was a sense that it was a tight race and Warisan Plus had a slight edge. The GRS politicians and analysts I spoke to were jittery about the alliance’s chances of winning.

One of the main factors that could have led to GRS losing was that its coalition parties were clashing in 17 out of the 73 state seats. The split was mostly in KDM seats, which GRS parties like PBS and Sabah STAR were expected to win.

However, the split turned out not to be significant. GRS won in all KDM seats except those it was expected to lose – Moyog, Limbahau, Melalap, Kadamaian, Inanam and Kapayan.

The KDM seats tipped the balance in GRS’ favour. DAP and PKR won overwhelmingly in Chinese-majority seats and Warisan and GRS were equally strong in Muslim-majority seats.

Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate with the University of Nottingham Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute, noted that three factors cost Warisan Plus the KDM votes.

For one, Upko could not overcome its negative image, she said, referring to KDM communities’ anger towards the party for leaving Barisan.

Also, PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s announcement, four days before polling day, that he had the numbers to form a new Federal Government affected Warisan Plus’ campaign on state rights which had been gaining momentum. She also said that Warisan Plus did not deliver enough to poorer, rural KDM communities.

She, however, noted that KDM communities in urban seats favoured Warisan Plus and there were strong GRS candidates in rural KDM seats.

When the results began showing that GRS was winning, I thought that one factor that could have contributed to Warisan Plus’ loss was the low voter turnout: 66% compared with 77.5% in GE14 in 2018.

Turnout was indeed decisive, Welsh pointed out. She said 14 seats had turnout drops more than the majority share.

"Liawan is a good example of a seat that changed hands with a turnout drop of 10% and a majority of 641 votes," she said.

What impact will the Sabah election have on national politics?

The lesson learnt from the Sabah polls, according to Assoc Prof Dr Abd Hamidin Abd Hamid, is that Umno must realise that it is no longer a dominant party in Malaysian politics.

“It should learn to be partners with others. Sabah result tells Umno that it can’t rule without others,” said the Universiti Malaya political analyst and fellow with independent research group Ilham Centre.

Before GE14, Umno could win all the seats it contested in Sabah. On Sept 16, Umno only won 14 out of the 31 seats it contested. The party lost in six seats to PBS and STAR – its GRS partners – and independents connected to Bersatu.

“Certain factions in Umno still think that the party is big and can go solo and rule and get a two-thirds majority (in national politics). Those days are gone. They have to learn to be parti pendokong (supporting party) and not parti tegar (core party),” he said.

“Umno can’t rule by itself. It needs others. The grassroots think they are still big, but it is the job of the leadership to open the eyes of their supporters to the fact that reality is changing, and it is changing fast,” said Assoc Prof Abd Hamidin.

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia political analyst Dr Mazlan Ali said the aftermath of the Sabah polls caused more friction between Umno and Bersatu with spillover effects for Peninsular Malaysia.

A faction in Umno is unhappy as they feel that Bersatu had “bullied” it in the choice of Sabah chief minister – GRS picked Sabah Bersatu chief Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor over Sabah Umno chief Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin.

“Umno feels that Bersatu is domineering it and that it has been sidelined. We can see Umno’s unhappiness with this at the national level, and it could affect the Perikatan government,” Mazlan said.

The recent death of Datuk Liew Vui Keong has set up the next battle for GRS and Warisan Plus: the Batu Sapi by-election.

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