The postponement of a by-election in Sabah underscores the tenuous hold on power by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition.
The Sabah state election on September 26 was carried out despite prior concerns raised by experts that the polls might exacerbate the spread of Covid-19. To its credit, the Election Commission (EC) had issued health Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the state election. Nevertheless, incidences of close contact and non-compliance during the election campaigns were widely shared on social media.
On Nomination Day on September 12, there were 48 new Covid-19 cases discovered in Sabah. On September 25, a day prior to Polling Day, Sabah reported just under a hundred new Covid-19 cases. The spike in cases is indictment enough of the rationale – ex-post – that the elections should not have been held altogether. Malaysia experienced a third wave soon after the Sabah state election with the number of daily new infections not falling below a few hundred since October 1.
It is clear that the tenuous position of the Perikatan Nasional (PN)-led federal government led Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to seek support and validation through the state election. This was done against the better judgement that the polls should be postponed until the pandemic is over or under better control. On November 18, Prime Minister Muhyiddin admitted that the Sabah state elections was the cause of the latest wave of infections.
With this admission, Prime Minister Muhyiddin made a case that the Batu Sapi by-election originally scheduled on December 5 should be postponed to prevent the development of new Covid-19 clusters. With the Agong’s consent, a state of emergency was declared in the constituency – after the monarch had rejected Muhyiddin’s request for a nation-wide emergency. In effect, this postponed the by-election. Under the emergency declaration, economic and social activities will continue, but subject to the nation-wide movement control order. The vacancy in the seat emerged following the death of Liew Vui Keong on October 2. Mr Liew was from the opposition Warisan party led by former chief minister Shafie Apdal.
Prior to the emergency declaration on November 18, MPs from the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, including Lim Kit Siang, had raised the possibility that the Batu Sapi by-election might result in the formation of new Covid-19 clusters. Mr Lim urged PN and other parties to refrain from contesting in Batu Sapi. Such a move would have led to a non-contest and enabled the incumbent Warisan party to retain the seat in a walkover.
If the by-election had proceeded, the ruling federal PN federal government (which includes Barisan Nasional as the largest component partner) is likely to face defeat.
The electoral dynamics of Batu Sapi underscores the tenuous grip that PN has in the federal parliament. With a threadbare two-seat majority in parliament, even a single additional seat would provide valuable breathing space and bargaining power for the incumbent PN government.
If the by-election had proceeded, the ruling federal PN federal government (which includes Barisan Nasional as the largest component partner) is likely to face defeat. In the 2018 General Election, BN received just above one third of the total votes cast in Batu Sapi. Warisan defeated BN by more than 4,000 votes, and secured 56 per cent of the total vote cast.
A postponement, however, could increase PN’s chances of wresting the seat from Warisan. The PN-led Gabungun Rakyat Sabah (GRS) coalition captured the state government from Warisan in the recent September state election. According to a recent survey conducted by Society Empowerment and Economic Development of Sabah (SEEDS), the most salient electoral issues among Sabahans are infrastructure development and the ability of the federal and state government to deliver on good governance. Should the newly-installed GRS state government prove to be competent in the subsequent months in improving the infrastructure in Batu Sapi, and also throughout Sabah, PN has a significant chance of capturing the seat when the by-election is eventually held.
The postponement of Batu Sapi by-election is a microcosm of the state of political affairs at the national level. Protracted conflicts within political coalitions, and between them, have temporarily abated during the past month due to politicians being obliged – at least publicly – to dedicate their efforts in combating the pandemic. On November 16, the MP for Gerik Hasbullah Osman passed away. A day later, Ms Manis Muka Mohd Darah, the Sabah assemblywoman for Bugaya, passed away. At the time of writing, it remains uncertain if an emergency will be announced in Gerik and Bugaya to postpone the two upcoming by-elections.
On October 25, the Agong rejected Muhyiddin’s plans to impose emergency measures across the nation. The palace said, however, that it was satisfied with the measures undertaken by the government to contain the spread of Covid-19. In addition, the King called on Members-of-Parliament (MPs) to cease “irresponsible actions that can threaten the stability of the existing government”. With regard to Budget 2021, the King advised MPs to give their full support for the sake of economic recovery and Malaysians’ livelihoods. On November 26, the budget was passed on its second reading.
This has given PM Muhyiddin’s fragile coalition a crucial lifeline – at least for now. Political contestation is almost certain to resume once the Covid-19 pandemic shows signs of recovery. On Saturday, Prime Minister Muhyiddin commented that Malaysia will hold a general election when the pandemic is over. The Batu Sapi by-election has been postponed, but the prime minister’s hold on power is by no means assured.
Kevin Zhang is a Senior Research Officer, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Lee Poh Onn is Senior Fellow with the Regional Economic Studies Programme and Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.