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After series of humiliating defeats, Umno's last fight for life in Sabah polls

With Sabah having undergone the most drastic political realignment since 2020, it is now a matter of life and death for Umno.

3 minute read
Sabah last held state elections in 2020 during the Covid pandemic.
Sabah last held state elections in 2020 during the Covid pandemic.

The upcoming elections in Sabah put Umno in a life-or-death situation, says a state party leader who sees it as the last chance to stay alive in the peninsula after the party suffered painful losses twice in the 2022 general elections and the four-state elections last year.

The focus is now on how the party, which won only 19 out of 108 seats in Selangor, Penang, Kelantan and Terengganu, can return to power in Sabah, once its stronghold under then chief minister Musa Aman.

Sabah must hold state elections by Dec 9 next year.

A senior Sabah politician said Umno's performance in the 73 states will have an impact on the party's strength at the federal level.


However, a keen observer of Sabah politics does not believe that the party's performance in the state elections will have any impact on Umno in the peninsula.

Lee Kuok Tiung, however, believes that the elections will not go in Umno's favour this time due to internal disputes.

"We expect voters to express their protest to Sabah Umno. They are Umno voters who will vote for other parties to show their dissatisfaction with leaders like Bung Moktar Radin and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi," said Lee of Universiti Malaysia Sabah, referring to the Sabah Umno chairman and party president.

He was referring to the divisions in Umno, when its assemblymen supported Gabungan Rakyat Sabah chairman Hajiji Noor, and Bung's decision to pull Umno out of the state government.

There is also the possibility of Sabah Umno joining forces with Warisan, the party that toppled Umno in 2018.

Sabah Umno chief Bung Moktar Radin and Warisan president Shafie Apdal
Sabah Umno chief Bung Moktar Radin and Warisan president Shafie Apdal

Lee said given Warisan and its chairman Shafie Apdal's past, joining forces with Umno would only give GRS an advantage.

"It is a new challenge that we will see this time in the elections, which I believe will only benefit GRS because it is the strongest party in Sabah," he added.

In the 2020 state elections, Umno won 14 of the 33 seats it contested.

Two years later, in the general election, Umno won six of the 11 parliamentary seats it contested.

It is now hoping to win at least 23 seats in the state assembly, less than the 15 seats it needs to form the state government on its own.

If successful, this would be a shot in the arm for Umno in the peninsula, which still shows no signs of overcoming its heavy electoral defeats since 2022.

Do or die?

Still, victory is impossible without the direct help of central Umno, a senior official said.

"Sabah Umno must help central Umno by all means, but they must also help us by all means. If we do not win this time, it will be difficult for Sabah Umno to rise again. So Umno will lose its strength in another state. Will not that affect Umno's chances of forming the government?" he asked when contacted by MalaysiaNow recently.

The last election in Sabah was held in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic when the GRS, then representing Perikatan Nasional (PN), joined hands with Barisan Nasional (BN) and Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) to bring down the Warisan-Pakatan Harapan government with a simple majority of 38 seats.

GRS won 17 seats, BN 13 and PBS 8.

Since then, Sabah has seen the most changes in political alignment.

Sabah Chief Minister Hajiji Noor.
Sabah Chief Minister Hajiji Noor.

The GRS-BN cooperation in Sabah ended in January 2023 when BN withdrew its support for Hajiji as chief minister.

However, Hajiji was able to remain in office after receiving the support of five Umno assembly members.

Several sources closely following political developments in Sabah predict that the state elections will be held in August or September this year.

This will further complicate Umno's chances.

"Unlike Hajiji, we will not have enough money to campaign then," said the same senior Umno leader who still wields influence.

According to him, Umno expects elections to be held in 2025.

Sabah Umno has already named a number of candidates who hope to win back the five state seats where their representatives have defected to support Hajiji, he added.