A combination of factors including the failure of Warisan’s allies to deliver for their alliance, a lower voter turnout, an increase in the number of seats contested, and the rejection of Upko by the predominant Kadazan Dusun Murut electorate has been seen as instrumental in the downfall of Shafie Apdal, the former Sabah chief minister who was in power for 26 months.
Other issues also played a role in the victory of Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS), the bloc comprising federal allies Perikatan Nasional (PN) and Barisan Nasional (BN) as well as Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), over Warisan Plus, the alliance made up of Warisan, Upko, PKR, DAP and Amanah.
These issues have been laid out in preliminary observations by Ilham Center, an independent research firm that had been studying the Sabah election campaign as it unfolded in the past month.
Low voter turnout
The lower voter turnout of below 70% dealt a blow to Warisan Plus’ bid to maintain power in the state.
Warisan had, after all, swept to power in the last general election mainly on the support of younger voters below 40 years of age.
But a big chunk of this demographic did not return to vote in their constituencies, with many distributed either throughout Sabah’s vast landscape in places such as Kota Kinabalu and Labuan, or in the peninsula.
The study pointed to two factors which could have caused the dearth of younger voters this time around.
The first was a lack of enthusiasm among such voters, in contrast to the situation two years ago when Warisan’s “Ubah” tagline captured the imagination of Sabahans amid allegations of massive corruption against the government at the time.
That campaign rode chiefly on the general mood to change the BN government.
This time, though, the cry of “Ubah” did not strike a chord with voters. Multi-cornered fights also meant that voters tended to go for more prominent candidates.
Younger voters were not as interested in the debate over individual candidates, causing them to lose interest in choosing their assemblymen and, ultimately, in going to vote.
There was also fatigue over the prolonged power struggle, which turned many away from returning to their constituencies for polling day.
The second factor was the impact of the Covid-10 pandemic. The spikes in daily cases reported in Sabah alone spooked many voters, making them reluctant to return to vote.
Rumours of an imminent lockdown as well as a quarantine to be enforced after the election added to that fear. Many did not want to risk being unable to return to work, which could lead to them losing their jobs.
In yellow zones like Lahad Datu and Tawau which saw sharp spikes of infections over the past weeks, the lack of returning voters cost Warisan Plus victory in several seats which were lost by only a thin margin to GRS.
KDM protest against Upko
In so-called KDM seats, the predominant Kadazan Dusun Murut community appeared to have rejected Upko.
This loss of support was attributed to voters’ unhappiness over the Sabah party’s decision to jump ship from BN to Warisan after the 2018 election. In that episode, the defection of five Upko assemblymen who contested under the BN banner to Shafie’s camp handed the Warisan leader the majority needed to form the government.
Upko’s support among voters at the time was due to the party’s use of the BN logo. This time, it chose to contest under Warisan, costing it in terms of votes from its traditional support base.
Although Upko’s switch to Warisan ruffled the feathers of its supporters, there was no attempt to explain the move or assuage their anger.
Even tactical efforts, such as bringing in former chief justice Richard Malanjun to Upko’s campaign, were too late. In the end, Upko only managed to win one of the 12 seats, effectively handing it a “technical knockout”.
With the exception of Ewon Benedick in Kedamaian, all of Upko’s candidates lost, even its president Wilfred Madius Tangau who lost to Joniston Bangkuai of PBS.
This was seen as a powerful rejection of Upko despite the strength of its candidates, as voters appeared to be more interested in its alliance.
This meant a huge loss of support for Upko, with ethnic KDM voters replacing its assemblymen with those from PBS and STAR.
It was in fact the KDM areas that caused Warisan and its allies to lose power in Sabah.
Future of Warisan and co
Nevertheless, Warisan managed to increase its share of seats in the state assembly by 7%. In the last election, it won 21 state seats; yesterday, it added eight more.
Upko was the biggest loser in the Warisan Plus coalition, winning just one seat.
PKR maintained status quo, winning two seats as it did in the last polls.
Amanah again failed to win its first seat in Sabah despite contesting under the Warisan banner, losing to BN in Tanjung Keramat.
This shows that without Warisan, its allies would have suffered a bigger defeat.
‘Sempornisation’ and immigrants
The influx of undocumented migrants was a sensitive issue played up by PBS and STAR. This proved effective in mobilising sentiments against Shafie and Upko, which ultimately cost Warisan in the polls.
The migrants issue was also played up in the Kimanis parliamentary by-election, where Shafie’s management of the situation was criticised as weak. It struck a chord among Bumiputera voters, especially the ethnic KDM and Rungus communities, leading them to reject Warisan Plus.
The same went for the so-called “Sempornisation”, a reference to Shafie’s Semporna seat where it was claimed that Shafie prioritised those from his own constituency for important positions in government agencies. This suggestion further drained support for Warisan Plus.
13 new seats
The addition of 13 state seats this time also played a part in the election results.
Nine of these new seats, or 69%, were won by GRS, the remainder by Warisan.
Warisan, which contested in seven of the 14 new seats, won in Darau, Limbahau, Segama and Kukusan. Segama is the seat of Mohammaddin Ketapi, who won despite his controversial remarks on the 2013 Lahad Datu incident which affected Warisan at the tail end of the campaign.
Among the new seats, BN won in Bengkoka, Pantai Dalit, Tanjung Keramat, Sungai Manila and Lamag, the latter through Sabah Umno chairman Bung Moktar Radin.
Meanwhile, PN won in Bandau, Pintasan and Tulid, and PBS in Telupid.
Warisan benefited from the split in votes caused by local parties, as seen in Kukusan. Its candidate Rina Jainal scraped through with a razor-thin majority of 10 votes, defeating BN’s Chaya Sulaiman.
Warisan benefited largely because Parti Harapan Rakyat Sabah managed to grab 796 votes, votes which could have tilted the results in BN’s favour.
We have consistently said that it would be challenging to predict the outcome of the election this time, thanks to the crowded contest.
It became more challenging due to voting patterns turning into one favouring personalities who were close to voters. It was, in fact, like analysing 73 by-elections happening simultaneously throughout Sabah.
This complication led to our consideration of 31 seats as “50/50” based on our poll of voters. Of these, 12 seats were unpredictable.
Even then, our own data shows that 82% of what we anticipated was correct, with 11 seats of ethnic KDM and Rungus electorates falling short of our predictions. We feel these 11 seats were difficult to predict due to the complex variables and voting patterns.
In conclusion, the combination of five factors led to Sabahans’ rejection of Shafie, giving GRS the majority to form the government.
Then again, Sabah’s fluid politics means anything can happen in the coming days, and there is no guarantee that those who won on paper will easily form the government.
Hisommudin Bakar is executive director of Ilham Center, an independent research firm that has been studying Malaysian elections and politics since 2006. This article was written exclusively for MalaysiaNow.