Voting opened on Saturday in Sabah state in eastern Malaysia in a vote deemed a referendum for the unelected government of 7-month-old Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
The opposition-led head of state dissolved the assembly on July 30 to call for early elections and thwart attempts by the ruling Muhyiddin alliance to take control of Sabah through defections of lawmakers.
The stakes are high for Muhyiddin after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said on Wednesday he had won majority support in the national parliament to overthrow Muhyiddin and form a new government.
âThis is the first statewide election since the establishment of Muhyiddin’s government in March. In a way, this is an indirect referendum on whether the people are happy with the formation of a backdoor (unelected) government, âsaid James Chin, studies professor. Asians at the Australian University of Tasmania.
Sabah and neighboring Sarawak on the island of Borneo hold around a quarter of the seats in parliament and are considered essential for political influence. Both states are rich in oil and timber but among the poorest in Malaysia. They have greater autonomy in administration, immigration and justice.
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The attempted takeover of Sabah is reminiscent of how Muhyiddin came to power in March after leaving the reformist government to form a new Malaysian-centered administration.
Muhyiddin’s alliance has since taken control of many states after lawmakers defected. The opposition now only controls Sabah and two of the country’s wealthiest states, Selangor and Penang.
But Muhyiddin is struggling to maintain his support amid infighting within his coalition, which has only a slim two-seat majority. His leadership is now further questioned after Anwar claimed to have gained the support of the majority, including lawmakers in the Muhyiddin camp.
Anwar has not revealed details as he waits to meet the King of Malaysia, who is hospitalized for treatment there. The king has the power to appoint a new prime minister or dissolve parliament for early general elections. Muhyiddin said Anwar’s statement was a mere allegation until he provided evidence.
Muhyiddin campaigned heavily in Sabah, promising development. Billboards of his smiling face nicknamed âAbah,â or father, are prominent in many constituencies. In contrast, former Sabah leader Shafie Apdal urged the state’s multiple indigenous groups to reject Muhyiddin’s Muslim government and unite behind it.
“A victory will strengthen Muhyiddin’s position, but a defeat will embolden Anwar’s attempt to regain power,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior researcher at the Institute of International Affairs in Singapore.
Sabah’s election is hotly contested with 447 candidates vying for 73 state seats. Over a million voters, many in rural areas, are eligible to vote. With the increase in coronavirus cases in the state in recent weeks, election officials have tightened the rules with strict health checks and other precautions.