BEAUFORT (Sabah) • 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 Datuk Mohamad Alamin, 47, in the Kimanis parliamentary vote, and Warisan is represented by Datuk Karim Bujang, 66.
Thousands of supporters from both sides gathered yesterday at the nomination centre in Beaufort town, west Sabah. Among them were former prime minister Najib Razak whose political fortune has rebounded since his BN government lost power in the May 2018 general election.
The Star newspaper quoted Mr Mohamad Alamin as saying: "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."
Mr 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 Jan 18, with the result expected in the evening.
Unlike in Peninsular Malaysia, where voters are mainly from the three predominant races of Malays, Chinese and Indians, the ethnic make-up 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 grouped 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, comprising 66 per cent Muslim Bumiputras, 30 per cent non-Muslim Bumiputras, 3.2 per cent Chinese and the rest 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 constituency for 20 years. But he won by only a slim 159 votes in the general election in a three-cornered fight, beating Warisan's Mr Karim and a candidate from a small party.
Datuk Seri Anifah left Umno and is now an independent MP. 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 have been held since the 2018 national vote, with Pakatan winning five and BN four.
Last year, 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, a three-party coalition, won a massive victory against PH in Tanjung Piai, Johor, last year to brighten its hopes of a rebound.
But voters in Sabah and Sarawak tend generally to track local state issues, and Sabah Umno in December 2018 saw the defections of six MPs, nine state assemblymen and two senators.