Umno beats PH ally Warisan in Sabah's Kimanis by-election

Boost for Umno leadership after party wins seat by a majority of 2,029 votes, improving on its narrow 2018 victory

Barisan Nasional candidate Datuk Mohamad Alamin (centre) celebrating the opposition coalition's victory in Kimanis by-election in Sabah, flanked by former premier Najib Razak (right) and Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (left). PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA
Barisan Nasional candidate Datuk Mohamad Alamin (centre) celebrating the opposition coalition's victory in Kimanis by-election in Sabah, flanked by former premier Najib Razak (right) and Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (left). PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Malaysia's opposition coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) retained its parliamentary seat in a Sabah by-election yesterday, defeating a candidate from an ally party of Pakatan Harapan (PH).

The contest for the Kimanis ward was Malaysia's 10th by-election since PH took power in May 2018, and meant both BN and PH have won five by-elections each.

Umno's Datuk Mohamad Alamin, 47, who stood under the BN flag garnered 12,706 votes, against Mr Karim Bujang, 66, from Parti Warisan Sabah who polled 10,677 votes. BN won by a majority of 2,029 votes.

Kimanis is a BN stronghold seat, with Umno winning the seat by a narrow 156-vote majority in a three-cornered fight in the May 2018 general election.

The seat was declared vacant after the Federal Court on Dec 2 upheld an Election Court's ruling nullifying the win by the previous Umno MP Anifah Aman, a former foreign minister, in the general election due to irregularities. Datuk Seri Anifah has left Umno.

The BN victory yesterday is a boost for Umno, whose leadership was nearly decimated in Sabah with most state party leaders quitting after the general election, to become independents or to join Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's political party. BN had lost nine assemblymen, six MPs and two senators in Sabah. The win yesterday meant BN now has two MPs in the state, both from Umno.

The narrowly contested by-election hinged on two issues - local development and the federal government's plan to introduce a migrant pass called Sabah Temporary Pass (PSS). The latter became campaign fodder for BN, who used a widely shared slogan of "One vote for Warisan is a vote for the PSS".

"The danger here is divisive politics such as that deployed successfully in (Peninsular Malaysia) would hence be introduced into Sabah," said Mr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Local voters have been apprehensive that the PSS would lead to foreign migrants, mostly from the Philippines, gaining citizenship.

The federal government has clarified that the pass is meant to synchronise three different existing passes for immigrants issued by various government agencies and is not meant to pave a path for permanent residency or citizenship.

However, political observers shared that Warisan leaders did not have a consistent message in explaining the migrant pass.

  • 12,706

    Number of votes garnered by Umno's Mr Mohamad Alamin, 47, who stood under the BN flag.

    10,677

    Number of votes Mr Karim Bujang, 66, from Parti Warisan Sabah won.

"It's their main weakness, they're unable to communicate with voters well. We see inconsistencies in the information disseminated by Warisan and PH leaders," said Dr Arnold Puyok, an academic at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.

The 29,664 voters in the rural ward consists of mostly Brunei Malays and indigenous tribes of Kadazan, Dusun and Muruts. Voter turnout was estimated at around 80 per cent.

Umno's Mr Mohamad and Warisan's Mr Karim are Kimanis locals. Mr Karim was a five-term assemblyman from Umno who was dropped by BN from contesting in the 2013 general election. He joined Warisan and contested in the 2018 elections, and narrowly lost to Mr Anifah Aman.

With the Umno Sabah leadership gutted by the defections, BN's campaign was led by Umno politicians from Peninsula Malaysia.

Former premier Najib Razak, who is now also known as Bossku (My Boss), visited Kimanis twice during the campaign period, drawing crowds despite the ongoing 1MDB trial. Warisan's by-election campaign was led by Sabah Chief Minister Shafie Apdal, who is also the party president.

Despite being in power at the state government, Warisan's promises of development in Kimanis failed to trump fears about immigrants. "The result indicates that the PSS issue must be handled very delicately and very gradually, as it was effectively played up by Umno," said Mr Oh.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 19, 2020, with the headline 'Umno beats PH ally Warisan in Sabah's Kimanis by-election'. Subscribe