The battle in Sabah for the hearts and minds of the voters is not a routine exercise that comes and goes every five years. This is a snap election that will be keenly watched in the peninsula because of the extraordinary political climate that the country is experiencing now.
The election can only be seen as the right move to pre-empt a bid by former chief minister Musa Aman to topple the legitimately elected government.
Musa claimed that he had the numbers to form the next government after some “elected frogs” had jumped from the ruling party – Warisan – to join Musa’s Sabah Umno.
Chief Minister Shafie Apdal had no choice but to thwart this nefarious plan. He sought and obtained the consent of Governor Juhar Mahiruddin to dissolve the State Legislative Assembly.
But Musa made a political miscalculation: not all states think alike. Sabah went its own way and put paid to his attempted comeback. His dash to the palace was stopped at the gate.
Musa, who was acquitted of 46 corruption and money-laundering charges some time ago, probably believed he could make a quick comeback as a squeaky clean politician, wistfully thinking that his acquittal has propelled him towards the “sunlight of restored public confidence”.
Even this cheap tactic is unlikely to wash with the people of Sabah, who have a mind of their own and can see his pretensions. Now, the pertinent question arises: does he really think the people want him to return as their leader when he has a tarnished record?
With the election, he has a fight on his hand: he has to convince the voters that he is a better man than Shafie to lead Sabah. The people can surely see that what preoccupies him is just a burning desire to take revenge on Shafie and ruin his political career for good.
But Musa’s personal grudge fight is not what thrills Sabah. What is more exciting is the clash between Warisan and Bersatu.
Bersatu now controls the federal government and its branch in Sabah is keen to capture the state, thus giving Bersatu a much-needed self-confidence boost.
Sabah Umno was once a force to be reckoned with, but today it is just impotent. The party, along with its foul-mouthed chairperson Bung Moktar Radin, might fall to Shafie’s Warisan army if only because the parent Umno is too weakened by the cancer of corruption to offer any form of help.
The wound inflicted by bossku Najib Abdul Razak, a convicted criminal, on the party is too deep to be healed in time for the party to recover sufficiently to participate in a national or state election.
So, the stage is set for Warisan and Bersatu to slug it out as foes after the great Pakatan Harapan split. Bersatu, by virtue of its hold on federal power under the Perikatan Nasional banner, certainly has a big stake in the outcome of the brawl in the ring.
A solid victory for Bersatu in Sabah will provide the ammunition for the party to gear up for the 15th general election in a much stronger position. But an abject defeat will deal a big blow to Muhyiddin’s dream of seeing his Bersatu grow in national stature.
In a larger sense, the Sabah polls will be a proxy fight between Muhyiddin and Shafie, one-time allies but now bitter enemies. It will also be a litmus test on the popularity of Muhyiddin ever since he gained political mastery under disputed circumstances.
A Shafie landslide will send an unmistakable signal that Muhyiddin is not a suitable leader for Malaysia. And a Warisan tsunami will convey a strong message that Bersatu is not a party for the people.