EMBATTLED PM: Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has been struggling to maintain support amid infighting in his coalition that has just a slim two-seat majority.
Polls yesterday opened in Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state in a vote seen as a referendum for embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s seven-month-old unelected government.
The leader of the opposition-ruled state dissolved the assembly on July 30 to seek early elections and thwart attempts by Muhyiddin’s ruling alliance to take over Sabah through lawmakers’ defections.
The stakes are high for Muhyiddin after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on Wednesday said that he has secured majority support in the Malaysian parliament.
“This is the first state-wide election since the creation of Muhyiddin’s government in March. In a way, it is an indirect referendum on whether the people are happy with the formation of the backdoor [unelected] government,” University of Tasmania Asian studies professor James Chin said.
Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo hold about one-quarter of the parliamentary seats and are seen as crucial for political leverage.
The two states — which are rich in oil and timber, but among the poorest in Malaysia — have a greater level of autonomy in administration, immigration and judiciary.
The attempted takeover of Sabah was reminiscent of how Muhyiddin took power in March after defecting from the reformist government to form a new Malay-centric administration.
Muhyiddin’s alliance has since taken control of many states after lawmakers defected.
The opposition now controls only Sabah and two of the country’s richest states, Selangor and Penang.
However, Muhyiddin has been struggling to maintain support amid infighting in his coalition that has just a slim two-seat majority.
His leadership is in further doubt after Anwar claimed to have won majority support, including from lawmakers in Muhyiddin’s camp.
Anwar has not revealed details, as he is waiting to meet with Malaysia’s king, who is receiving treatment in a hospital, because the king has the power to appoint a new prime minister or dissolve the parliament for early general elections.
Muhyiddin has said that Anwar’s declaration was a mere allegation until he provides evidence.
Muhyiddin has campaigned heavily in Sabah, pledging development. Billboards of his smiling face dubbed “Abah,” or father, are prominent in many constituencies.
By contrast, former Sabah leader Shafie Apdal urged the state’s multiple Aboriginal communities to reject Muhyiddin’s Muslim government and unite behind him.
“A win will strengthen Muhyiddin’s position but a loss will embolden Anwar’s attempt to reclaim power,” Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun said.
The Sabah election is heavily contested, with 447 candidates vying for 73 state seats, and more than 1 million eligible voters.