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Malaysia's Muhyiddin wins crucial victory in Sabah state election

Result takes pressure off leadership challenge by Anwar Ibrahim

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. His position was strengthened by his coalition's victory in the state of Sabah.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- A coalition formed by parties in Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's government won a crucial state election in Sabah on Saturday, easing pressure on the embattled leader who faces a challenge from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

The Muhyiddin-led coalition, Sabah People's Movement, received a mandate from some 1.1 million voters on the Borneo island and crossed the 37 assembly-seat threshold to form the next state government.

The coalition -- primarily comprising the premier's Malaysian United Indigenous Party and the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) -- defeated sitting state chief minister Shafie Apdal and his Sabah Heritage Party, which won 21 seats as of press time. Shafie was once tapped as a leading candidate for prime minister by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was unseated in an internal coup by Muhyiddin.

The victory boosted Muhyiddin's standing at the federal level, where he faced a leadership challenge from Anwar, who claimed to have the majority of members of parliament supporting him.

Under the constitution, King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin can pick as the country's prime minister from whoever commands majority support in parliament, or in some cases, the person who the king believes has the confidence of the legislature.

However, Anwar has yet to meet the king to prove his claims.

Saturday's result in Sabah was an indication that voters were influenced by mudslinging campaigns run by the Sabah People's Movement, Ei Sun Oh, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"It shows that smear tactics such as painting opponents as foreigners, thus appealing to xenophobic sentiments, plus the so-called development card is still useful," he said.

Although the winning parties came together as a coalition, an internal power struggle is expected to take place for the chief minister's position between UMNO and Muhyiddin's party, known as Bersatu.

Bersatu had fielded Hajiji Noor, 65, as the chief minister candidate while UMNO had proposed Bung Mokhtar Radin, 62.

Speaking during a news conference, Bung Mokhtar said a discussion will be held with Bersatu leaders on determining the next chief minister of Sabah.

"We thank the people of Sabah who wanted to change from the existing government. We will ensure the new government will be efficient and transparent for the people of Sabah," he said.

Muhyiddin, under attack at the federal level, hit the campaign trail hard in Sabah over the past two weeks, traveling throughout the state and announcing hundreds of millions of ringgit in development projects to woo voters.

During the campaign, Muhyiddin had indicated that snap federal polls would be called early in case his coalition wins the Sabah state election.

Sivamurugan Pandian, a political sociology professor at the National University of Science in Malaysia, said the victory in Sabah was a personal victory for Muhyiddin. "Voters opted for personalities although many blocks were formed," he said.

Voters chose from 447 candidates contesting 73 assembly seats, in one of the most crowded election fields in the state's history.

The election held under strict hygienic and social-distancing guidelines. Positive cases of the coronavirus had been rising steadily in Sabah, including some politicians testing positive for COVID-19. In the past two weeks, the state recorded close to 900 positive cases with cases expected to increase further.

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