KOTA KINABALU - People in Malaysia’s second biggest state are patiently queueing up on Saturday (Sept 26) to vote in the Sabah state polls - a major test for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin, in power for seven months, needs his Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) alliance to grab power from a faction which is allied to the federal opposition parties.
The state election is being held just days after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on Wednesday launched a bid to topple him as prime minister.
Mr Muhyiddin’s GRS alliance comprises his Perikatan Nasional (PN) faction, the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and several other Sabah-based parties. These groups clash with one another in 17 of the 73 seats in the state assembly that are up for grabs.
There are over 400 candidates vying for the 73 seats, with some wards seeing an 11-cornered fight.
A victory in Sabah could help Mr Muhyiddin protect his wafer-thin majority in the federal Parliament, which appears uncertain at this point.
People started queueing up as early as 7am on Saturday, adhering to new Covid-19 safe measures.
Turnout was at 54 per cent at 2pm, the Election Commission (EC) said, and polling stations will close at 5pm.
The drastic uptick in Covid-19 cases in the east coast of Sabah has dampened expectations for voter turnout, with the EC revising its turnout forecast from 75 per cent to 70 per cent.
Almost 1.1 million Sabahans are eligible to vote, and some 28,000 staff members have been deployed to conduct the elections, which involves 741 voting stations.
Parti Warisan Sabah, led by chief minister Shafie Apdal, ruled the state after the 2018 general election. Warisan is aligned to Datuk Seri Anwar's Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition coalition in the federal Parliament.
On Saturday, election workers were dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE) and scanned the temperature of every voter at the entrance of polling stations. Voters in queue stood at safe distances apart.
Voters described the process as smooth.
One of them, Ms Julia Chan, 37, said the entire process took 20 minutes despite the safety protocols, which was much faster compared to the 90 minutes it took her in the 2018 elections.
Another voter, Mr Phang Yuk Yin, said that many voters had turned up in the morning despite Covid-19 concerns.
"It is a very efficient process by the EC. End of the day, as Sabahans, this is our state and this is our responsibility," Mr Phang, 51, told The Straits Times.
Datuk Seri Shafie, who voted at his state constituency Senallang on Saturday morning, also said that the voter turnout could be lower due to concerns over the virus.
There 730 active cases in the east coast of Sabah alone, all of them discovered this month. The state alone recorded three-digit daily infections twice this week.
The EC said it aims to have the full results by 10pm, but said that it is largely dependent on the returning officers at polling stations, some of which are in remote areas.
The vast interiors of Sabah, with no immediate road access, mean some ballot papers are being transported via helicopter.
In the last Sabah state elections, conducted concurrently with the 2018 national elections, the results were announced only at 5am, after a 77 per cent turnout.
The Straits Times previously reported that thousands of Sabah voters who are working or studying in Peninsular Malaysia are expected to miss the state elections, unable to afford the flight tickets, coupled with concerns of the virus' spread.