BEAUFORT - Malaysia's first by-election in the new year is in Sabah state, with a straight fight between Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) and Parti Warisan Sabah, a close ally of the country's governing coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH).
BN is fielding Mohamad Alamin, 47, for the Kimanis parliamentary by-election, and Warisan is represented by Karim Bujang, 66.
Thousands of supporters from both sides gathered at the nomination centre in Beaufort town to support their candidates, including former Malaysian premier Najib Razak whose political fortunes have rebounded after the BN that he led was kicked out of power in the May 2018 general election.
Said Datuk Mohamad Alamin, as quoted by The Star newspaper: "We will see what are the other pressing issues faced by the people here, but some of the main things they are not happy about we know."
Datuk Karim, when asked about Najib's presence, said: "I was just wondering how a person who has a case in court can come here and act like he is the boss. That one is an irony to me."
Polling day for Kimanis is on Jan 18 with the result expected later that evening.
Unlike in Peninsular Malaysia where voters are mainly from the three predominant races of Malays, Chinese and Indians, the ethnic makeup and voting tendencies in both Sabah and Sarawak states in East Malaysia are different.
Due to a much more diverse race mix in East Malaysia, they are usually lumped based on their religious affiliations - Muslims or non-Muslims, with the third voting bloc being the influential Chinese minority.
There are 29,644 voters in Kimanis. They consisted of some 66 per cent Muslim Bumiputras, 30 per cent non-Muslim Bumiputras, 3.2 per cent Chinese and the remainder listed as others, according to the 2018 electoral roll.
The parliamentary seat was a stronghold of former foreign minister Anifah Aman from Umno-BN. who held the parlliamentary constituency for 20 years.
But he won by a slim 159 votes in the May 2018 general election in a three-cornered fight, beating Warisan's Datuk Karim and a candidate from a small party.
Datuk Seri Anifah has since left Umno-BN to become an independent MP, but he won't be contesting. His 2018 victory was nullified by Malaysia's apex Federal Court due to electoral irregularities.
The Kimanis by-election is being closely watched for signs of public disenchantment with the federal ruling coalition PH and with Warisan, which controls the Sabah state assembly.
Nine by-elections had been held since the May 2018 general election, with Pakatan winning 5 and BN 4.
Last year (2019), BN won four of the five by-elections held at both parliament and state levels, while PH only won one seat in Sandakan, Sabah - a Chinese-majority seat.
BN, now a three-party coalition - down from being a 13-party group when it was in power - won a massive victory against PH in Tanjung Piai, Johor, in last year's final by-election, thus brightening its hopes of a rebound.
But voters in Sabah and Sarawak tend to lean along local issues, and the Umno cache has been badly deflated since losing the May 2018 general election.
Sabah Umno in December 2018 lost six MPs, nine state assemblymen and two senators. Most defected to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, a PH component party.