After Sabah election, Muhyiddin sitting in pole position to hold off Anwar and remain Malaysia PM

  • Analysts say prime minister solidified position to call – and win – snap election despite plan by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to oust him
  • Muhyiddin achieved a second major coup as allies surprisingly picked a member of his party to be the state’s chief minister

The months of fierce turmoil in Malaysia’s federal-level politics ultimately played only a minor role in the outcome of the weekend’s state elections in Sabah, but nonetheless it was Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin who has emerged as the biggest winner following the polls.

And in coming out on top in the closely watched state-level battle, the 73-year-old leader’s strengthened hand gives him a good chance of winning a snap general election if he calls one soon – despite a recent threat by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to oust him through defections.

This was the consensus of political analysts on Monday as Muhyiddin, fresh off the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) alliance’s victory in Sabah on Saturday, achieved a second major coup as allies surprisingly picked a member of his party to be the state’s chief minister.

GRS comprises Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), the larger, decades-old former ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) party and Sabah-based collaborators.

Expectations earlier had been that Umno – with its major sway in federal politics – would demand the chief minister’s position. But following two days of intense talks, Mohd Hajiji Mohd Noor, of the PPBM, was selected. He will be sworn in by the state governor on Tuesday.

For some, the symbolism of both victories cannot be understated given the political pressure Muhyiddin has withstood during his time in office.

Harrison Cheng, the Asia-Pacific associate director for political risk consultancy Control Risks, told This Week in Asia that he viewed Hajiji’s nomination as “quite significant”.

“That Muhyiddin has been able to secure the chief minister position in Sabah for Bersatu strengthens his clout, both within the federal coalition and against Anwar’s plot,” Cheng said.

Having gained power on March 1 after defecting from a government comprising the Pakatan Harapan bloc – the current opposition – Muhyiddin has faced nearly weekly questions over his staying power as a national leader and whether his PPBM was a mere puppet of Umno.

In between, the hastily cobbled together Perikatan Nasional ruling alliance comprising Umno, PPBM and other partners has been beset by internal squabbling and a series of bungles by ministers. And last week, Anwar’s bold declaration that he had the support of “close to” two-thirds of the country’s 222 MPs only added to the prime minister’s headache.

A worker in a protective suit sprays disinfectant on a ballot box inside a polling station during the 2020 Sabah state election. Photo: Bernama/DPA

Commentary in recent days about Saturday’s victory for GRS in Sabah showed that the national-level bickering weighed minimally on voters’ choices.

Instead, issues such as vote-splintering and campaigning by the eventual winners that painted the incumbent Parti Warisan Sabah and chief minister Shafie Apdal – a Pakatan Harapan ally – as sympathetic towards undocumented immigrants could have impacted the vote, panellists who took part in a webinar organised by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak think tank on Monday said.

Still, with GRS having campaigned with Muhyiddin’s face on most of its posters and the federal ruling alliance footing the bill for campaigning in rural areas, analysts like James Chin, a specialist on Malaysia‘s Borneo states, said there was no doubt that the prime minister benefited from the election.

“Muhyiddin will benefit politically from GRS’ victory,” he wrote in a commentary on the website of Singaporean national broadcaster CNA on Monday. “He can take credit for GRS‘ win since it was Perikatan Nasional who funded the bulk of GRS’ campaign and operations in the [indigenous Kadazan Dusun and Murut ethnic groups’] heartland.”

GENERAL ELECTIONS SOON?

Political analysts who were previously bearish about Muhyiddin’s chances of winning a snap general election and staying on as prime minister acknowledge that they may have to recalibrate their forecasts given the latest developments.

The possibility of a snap poll has been at the centre of political chatter in the country since the start of Muhyiddin’s administration, which will mark its sixth month in power on Thursday. A key reason for the belief that a snap vote is inevitable is the prime minister’s razor-thin legislative majority of two seats, even with the backing of Umno.

Umno support has also not shown signs of being ironclad, with the rumour mill whirling that Anwar’s plot involves support from some of Umno’s 39 MPs.

Political scientist Azmil Tayeb said the next key test for Muhyiddin would be the vote for next year’s budget, which is expected to take place in November. “A win in the budget vote will give [Muhyiddin] and Perikatan Nasional a shot of confidence ahead of the upcoming election,” Azmil said.

Others did not rule out the remote possibility that Muhyiddin could choose to go to the polls before a budget vote.

Such a scenario is possible if the vote is pushed to December and the month-long parliamentary debate that precedes it is compressed into a shorter time period.

Voters wearing face masks wait for their turn at a polling station during the Sabah state election. Photo: AP

Political observer Oh Ei Sun said that in this scenario, the election could be held as early as October.

“Otherwise, it could be early next year, for example after Lunar New Year, when budget handouts begins to take effect,” Oh said. “In any case, it has to be sooner than later, not only due to pressure from Umno but an ailing economy that would make disgruntled voters,” he said.

Most observers commenting on the likely dividends for Muhyiddin from the Sabah polls hedged their bets — saying that the state‘s notorious reputation for political defections meant there could yet be a reversal of fortunes.

22 September 2020, Malaysia, Kota Kinabalu: Police officers show their ink-stained fingers after casting their ballots during the 2020 Sabah state election. Photo: Iskandar/BERNAMA/dpa

Late on Monday, local media outlets reported that the defeated incumbent chief minister, Shafie, had been holding meetings with newly elected state representatives throughout the day, with talk rife that he may be plotting mass defections before Hajiji is sworn in.

Shafie gained power following 2018’s general election after engineering a similar post-election day manoeuvre.

Chin, the University of Tasmania scholar, wrote in his commentary on CNA: “Warisan still has a chance to engineer defections and stay in government, similar to what transpired after the 2018 general election. If that happens, Muhyiddin will be weakened politically.”

As for Anwar, the opposition leader‘s hand “is of course weakened by the Sabah results, especially when his party did not perform well,” added Oh, the political observer.

Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat – a linchpin of Pakatan Harapan – won just two out of the seven seats it contested.

South China Morning Post

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