By approving the dissolution of the SLA, whose term runs until 2023, the Governor has decided to let Musa Aman and Shafie Apdal settle their rivalry at the polls. (Photo: Shafie Apdal, Facebook / CEphoto, Uwe Aranas)

Political Turmoil in Sabah: Attack of the Kataks

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True to form, Sabah’s storied “katak” (frog) politicians have hopped parties again, leading to the dissolution of the state assembly and triggering fresh elections. Voters have much to mull over in coming days.

Former Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman’s attempted ouster of his successor and long-time rival Shafie Apdal was largely expected. After being acquitted of 46 charges of alleged corruption and money laundering associated with timber concessions, Musa swiftly enticed lawmakers supporting the Warisan-led government to cross the aisle.

In reaction, Shafie announced the dissolution of the State Legislative Assembly (SLA) on the morning of 30 July 2020 to pave the way for a fresh elections within 60 days. Sabah’s Governor consented to Shafie’s request.

Immediately after the dissolution of the SLA, Musa reiterated that that he had secured support, through statutory declarations, of the requisite 33 lawmakers to form a new government in the 65-seat assembly. That afternoon, Musa trooped his entourage to the Istana Negeri (State Palace) to seek an audience with the Governor to be appointed as the new Chief Minister, but was denied entry by the police guarding the Istana.

The role of the Governor in the latest political crisis is crucial. By approving the dissolution of the SLA, whose term runs until 2023, the Governor decided to let Musa and Shafie settle their rivalry at the polls.

Musa said that those who left Warisan to support him did so because Warisan was weak and that Warisan’s decision to go against the Perikatan Nasional federal government would be detrimental to Sabah’s development. He might not have been successful in taking over the government through defections but he was successful in ending Shafie’s term as Chief Minister abruptly.

Whichever the case, it is back to square one for Sabah.

This is not the first time that a government was brought down due to party defections – and far from the first time Sabahans are witnessing change of government. In Sabah’s modern history since 1963, the government has changed five times, during and between elections.

In 1986, the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) government collapsed after a series of defections, forcing another round of elections less than a year after the 1985 state election. In what was described as the “third mandate,” the PBS won the election with a resounding majority, crippling its opponents, United Sabah National Organisation (USNO) and Parti Bersatu Rakyat Jelata Sabah (Berjaya).

The year 1994 saw history repeating itself rather forcefully. After winning the state election with a two-seat majority, PBS’s leader Pairin Kitingan had to wait for 36 hours before he was allowed to seek an audience with the Governor to be appointed Chief Minister. The 1986 attempted coup came to haunt Pairin again after some key PBS lawmakers deserted him, ending PBS’ nine-year administration and paving the way for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to form the government.

What can we expect in the next 60 days? Will the electorate “punish” the defectors who caused the Warisan-led government to collapse?

Given Sabah’s personality- and patronage-driven politics, the defections will not have widespread effects, nor exert major influence on voter decisions. But the magnitude and credibility of cash-laden promises may be constrained by the economic downturn

GE14 showed that neither then incumbent Barisan Nasional nor Warisan and its allies commanded a decisive majority. In fact, the vote count for UMNO and Warisan in the Malay/Muslim-majority constituencies was almost equal. BN also obtained more popular votes than Warisan and its allies in the Kadazandusun-majority constituencies.

The 18 January 2020 Kimanis by-elections suggest that the electorate do not mind re-electing BN due to the perceived weaknesses in Warisan leadership.

Given Sabah’s personality- and patronage-driven politics, the defections will not have widespread effects, nor exert major influence on voter decisions. But the magnitude and credibility of cash-laden promises may be constrained by the economic downturn.

There are many defectors or “kataks” (frogs), as they are popularly known in Sabah, who still enjoy strong support. A case in point is Jeffrey Kitingan, the President of STAR Sabah (Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku Rakyat Sabah) who is notoriously known for party hopping.

Although leading a small party and being branded the “king of frogs,” Jeffrey survived GE14 by the skin of his teeth. His party won two state seats (Bingkor and Tambunan) and a parliamentary seat (Keningau).

Jeffrey even emerged as kingmaker when BN and Warisan were deadlocked at 29 seats apiece, allowing STAR to swing the election by siding with BN. That gambit was fleeting, however, as six BN lawmakers ditched the coalition to support Warisan and its allies.

The coming election will see Musa and Shafie going head-to-head, but also pressured by other personalities such as Anifah Aman, Malaysia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, who is now leading Parti Cinta Sabah (PCS).

Anifah is expected to offer himself as the alternative and the “third force”. However, the success of his cause will depend on how well he attracts strong personalities and new leaders into his party.

Seventy-three seats are expected to be contested, including 13 new seats. Musa and Shafie will surely to go for broke in a two-horse race for the Chief Ministership. Other leaders will fancy their party’s chances to win seats and perhaps play kingmaker, including Anifah, Jeffrey Kitingan, Hajiji Noor of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and even Madius Tangau of the United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation (UPKO).

More personalities and new faces are expected to throw their hats into the ring. The stage is set for another election to gauge the people’s feelings about a raft of issues: the performance of the Warisan-led government, the coup attempt by Musa and the rise of new leaders who want to make a difference. Voters will have a lot to mull over in the coming days.

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