KOTA KINABALU - Candidates for Sabah's 73 state seats will file their nominations on Saturday (Sept 12) in what is not just a contest for Malaysia's easternmost state, but for the legitimacy of two leading candidates to govern the country in the future.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is secure as head of the seven-month-old Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, at least until he calls for an expected snap election, where the opposition could be led by Sabah's incumbent Chief Minister Shafie Apdal.
But whoever is on the losing side of this protracted battle for Sabah will find his credibility to seek a full term as prime minister severely dented.
"Parties want to know whether their PM candidate can actually deliver votes, so Sabah is a dry run," Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun told The Straits Times.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin, riding on a wave of approval over Kuala Lumpur's handling of the coronavirus outbreak, has been forced into an early test of the cohesiveness of his fledgling ruling pact after Datuk Seri Shafie convinced the Sabah governor - a ceremonial head of state - to dissolve the legislature when defectors deprived his Parti Warisan Sabah-led coalition of a majority in July.
Mr Shafie has been nominated as a candidate for the premiership by most opposition parties except Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which insists its president, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, must ascend to the highest office.
A deal for Mr Anwar to replace former PM Mahathir Mohamad was scuppered when Pakatan Harapan (PH) was toppled due to defections in February.
Analysts believe that results of the Sabah election on Sept 26 will impact internal dynamics in both opposition and government pacts.
"A Warisan loss would embolden detractors in PH to argue that Shafie would not be able to deliver Malaysia if he can't even deliver his home state," said Dr Oh.
If Mr Muhyiddin's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and PN fail to deliver in Sabah, he may lack leverage to secure enough seats for his party at the general election and may eventually find himself unable to resist Umno's desire to wrest back the premiership.
Mr Muhyiddin has had to fight hard to retain his slim parliamentary majority - 113 out of 222 MPs - amid jostling for leverage by allies in the hastily cobbled together coalition after PH was ousted.
Umno, the largest party in government, is refusing to join an officially registered PN, and wants to contest as Barisan Nasional (BN), the once dominant coalition it leads.
Bersatu and its allies will contest the Sabah vote using at least three different flags, and have yet to agree on who would be chief minister should they emerge victorious.
The political uncertainty clouding the Muhyiddin administration has pushed ruling parties to call for fresh polls, expected by early next year, while the premier himself has also declared to his party that he wants to claim a strong personal mandate from voters.
National opinion polls have the Prime Minister's approval rating at 69 per cent as of August, while the Society Empowerment and Economic Development of Sabah (Seeds) think-tank found in its survey two weeks ago that nine of 10 people in the state were satisfied with his performance.
On the other hand, nearly 40 per cent of Sabahans pick Mr Shafie as the best chief minister candidate, more than the three likeliest choices from Umno and Bersatu combined, the Seeds survey showed. But only 54 per cent approved of the Warisan state government, as compared with the 82 per cent for PN at federal level.
"Shafie has certain qualities - a good speaker, down to earth - so people like his personality. But when it comes to governing, people are not so happy," Seeds chairman Arnold Puyok told ST. "If PN talks about how they are going to fix Sabah's economy, they will stand a good chance," he said.
A top Warisan leader told ST: "It is a proxy battle between Shafie and Muhyiddin. This may explain why Anwar decided to launch PKR's own election machinery last weekend instead of endorsing our president."
The so-called Warisan Plus campaign led by Mr Shafie was launched simultaneously and includes the Democratic Action Party and Parti Amanah Negara - components of the Anwar-led PH coalition - as well as local party United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation.
Only PKR is refusing to use the Warisan logo as a common banner for the alliance.