Muhyiddin's GRS coalition still troubled by infighting

Power plays within Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's coalition continue to encumber its bid in a crucial state election in Sabah, which is taking place today amid fresh questions over his majority in Parliament.

The Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) - comprising Tan Sri Muhyiddin's Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN) and Parti Bersatu Sabah - has struggled to prevent electoral clashes among its own members.

This has effectively handed the advantage to the federal opposition-aligned Warisan Plus coalition led by caretaker Chief Minister Shafie Apdal, who has been touted as a possible prime ministerial candidate for the Malaysian opposition.

Mr Muhyiddin has hinted at the possibility of holding snap elections soon should his GRS coalition win in Sabah, where 447 candidates are vying for 73 state assembly seats.

But his coalition partners, who banded together only a day before the Sept 12 Nomination Day, are contesting against one another in 17 of the seats - almost a quarter of the total. There has also been uncertainty over who will be the coalition's chief minister should they win power.

Mr Muhyiddin had endorsed the Sabah chief of his own party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), Hajiji Noor, to be the chief minister in the event of a victory. However, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the decision on the appointment will be made after the election.

Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid did not show up for a grand finale GRS rally on the outskirts of Kota Kinabalu on Thursday, the day after he cast doubts over Mr Muhyiddin's majority in Parliament when he said that some Umno MPs are backing opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to become the next PM. Umno is currently the biggest party in the PN government.

In contrast, the Warisan Plus coalition has successfully managed to avoid infighting, and incumbent Datuk Seri Shafie's face has been plastered all over the state in a clear indication of a single chief ministerial candidate should they win the polls.

Mr Shafie's campaign message is also finding traction. He has campaigned on the message of inclusivity - stressing on the multicultural and multi-religious aspect of life in Sabah, and preaching unity among races.

His message contrasts with the polarised politics of Peninsular Malaysia, with the federal government being formed largely by parties based on race and religion.

All Warisan Plus components - Warisan, United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation (Upko), Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) - are multiracial parties.

  • Key facts

  • SEATS IN THE STATE ASSEMBLY

    73

    REGISTERED VOTERS

    1.12m

    TOTAL CANDIDATES

    447

    PARTIES CONTESTING

    20

  • DEMOGRAPHICS

    Indigenous bumiputera or native groups, such as the Kadazan Dusun Muruts and the Bajau people, form over half the population. Chinese and Malays make up 9 and 5 per cent, and foreigners, 20 per cent. Islam has the most followers, with 65 per cent being Muslims, and there is a sizeable Christian community (26 per cent).

  • ALLIANCES, SEATS CONTESTED

    GABUNGAN RAKYAT SABAH (GRS)

    Aligned to Perikatan Nasional, the ruling federal government

    Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia: 19 seats

    Umno: 31 Malaysian Chinese Association: 4 Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah: 5 seats

    Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku: 8 seats

    Sabah Progressive Party: 2 seats

    Parti Bersatu Sabah: 22 seats

    Note: GRS allies will contest against one another in 17 seats.

    WARISAN PLUS

    Aligned to Pakatan Harapan, the federal opposition

    Parti Warisan Sabah: 46 seats

    United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation: 12 seats

    Democratic Action Party: 7 seats

    Parti Keadilan Rakyat: 7 seats

    Parti Amanah Negara: 1 seat

"Shafie's unity message resonates well," said Singapore Institute for International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun, who is also a Sabah native.

"Warisan does have the edge as the other side (GRS) is disorganised and somewhat going at each other," he told The Straits Times.

While a Warisan victory is expected to embolden the federal opposition's attempts to retain power, it will also slow Umno's push for snap elections, the analyst said.

A GRS win also does not necessarily mean good news for Mr Muhyiddin, Dr Oh said, pointing out that it depends on the share of seats won by his party versus Umno.

"A GRS win, with Umno vastly outnumbering Bersatu in seats, would be a nightmare for Muhyiddin, as Umno would redouble efforts to push for elections," he said.

This election is the first time Mr Muyhiddin's party is contesting in Sabah. It stayed out of Sabah during the 2018 elections, when it was aligned with Warisan, and its Sabah chapter was formed after the elections. All of PPBM's assemblymen in Sabah were elected on an Umno ticket.

Mr Shafie, on the other hand, has wasted no time in engaging with Sabahans of different age groups, and has managed to convince allies such as DAP and Amanah to contest the election under his party's logo - reinforcing the message of unity.

Mr Shafie has been touted as a PM candidate for the federal opposition, with the backing of two-time premier Mahathir Mohamad. While Datuk Seri Anwar claimed to have a parliamentary majority this week, Mr Shafie has not said if his party's nine MPs are also backing the PKR president for premiership.

Warisan has not officially joined any federal alliance, enabling it to continue being a Sabah-based party for Sabahans, free of direct Peninsular influence.

Its surprise win in the 2018 elections and ability to form the state government changed the landscape of Borneo politics - leading to more parties in Sabah and Sarawak becoming more state-centric and detached from federal alliances.

The ruling parties of neighbouring Sarawak left BN following the 2018 elections, and formed their own alliance called Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS).

GPS backs the current PN government but has not formally joined the coalition.

Sabah has over a million registered voters eligible to take part in this election. The Communications Ministry is targeting a 70 per cent voter turnout.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2020, with the headline 'Muhyiddin's GRS coalition still troubled by infighting'. Print Edition | Subscribe