Sabah Elections: An Overview

As UNM students kickstarted a new academic year, the Sabahan people rushed to the polls to vote for their preferred political party on the 26th of September 2020. Over a million people rushed across 73 districts to cast their votes, choosing from an astonishing pool of over 400 candidates from 20 political parties. Out of those 20 parties, the 2 most popular parties were Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) and Sabah Heritage Party (Warisan). The most interesting fact about this election is that it was a ‘snap election’. Protocols due to pandemic made it challenging for the administration to run this large exercise.

Why did the Sabah Elections take place suddenly?

The snap elections took place after severe political tensions grew between WARISAN’s Shafie Apdal  (the-then Chief Minister of Sabah) and UMNO’s Musa Aman (the former Chief Minister of Sabah).It all started when Shafie emerged victorious in the 2018 general elections. This meant that Musa was not in power after a decade and a half.  Therefore, Musa was adamant on getting back his role – but not in a manner which reflects democracy. He allegedly went on to great lengths to bribe Sabah’s elected representatives’ so that they switch to his side. He even claimed that he “had secured a simple majority to form a new state government”. In response, Shafie declared that “it is the people of Sabah, not other quarters, who would determine the state government”.

The political situation got escalated when the Pakatan Harapan’s federal government was rooted out of power. Shafie went on to ask Sabah’s Head of State Juhar Mahiruddin to dissolve the state assembly. Mahiruddin complied, and he dissolved the assembly successfully in compliance with Clause 2, Article 21 of the State Constitution. However, according to the Constitution, it is mandatory for an election to take place within 60 days of the assembly being dissolved. This resulted in the much heated 16th Sabahan elections.

Campaign Strategy:

Warisan’s catchphrase for the state elections was “Sabah for Sabahans”, contending that “outsiders” (Malayans) should let Sabah be autonomous and that Sabahans should only vote for state nationalists. Many billboards across Sabah flashed the bold words “we are here to build a nation, not a particular race or religion”. Warisan’s conviction of unity and freedom was apparently very well-received, specially within the Chinese populace. On the other hand, GRS (led by Perikatan Nasional and the Barisan Nasional) preached Malay supremacy.

Election Results:

PN coalition won the election with a majority of 38 seats, contrary to what people were expecting. Shafie Abdal’s Warisan party only managed to get 32 seats despite having a bold, nationalist campaign. Their loss indicates that campaigning for ‘Sabah for Sabahans’ and striving for Sabah’s autonomy under the 1963 Malaysian Agreement (MA63) did not  supersede the bread-and-butter concerns of the locals, even though the notion itself is very popular. The fear that Warisan cannot move them forward financially made more people side with the PN coalition , despite the popular ‘Sabah for Sabahans’ campaign.

Political Implication for PM Muhyiddin:

PM Muhyiddin is said to benefit greatly from the election outcomes of Sabah. A whooping 57 of the 222 seats of the Malaysian Parliament belong to Sabah and Sarawak. Therefore, the loss of Shafie means that he would not have an “eastern” problem. His ally winning in Sabah also means that his political position in peninsular Malaysia is strengthened even more. He needed this support desperately, given that his opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim announced that he “commands the majority necessary to replace Muhyiddin’s government.”  

Now it is very important for the new government to cater to the needs of the local. Such policies should be formed and more importantly implemented which will help to reduce poverty and bring prosperity in Sabah.

Written by: Uzma Islam