PETALING JAYA • Sabah may hold its state elections as early as April, after being given the nod to do so by Prime Minister Najib Razak, The Star newspaper reported yesterday, in what could be a trial run for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition ahead of the general election.
BN controls 48 - or 80 per cent - of the 60 wards in the Sabah state assembly and is led by Umno Chief Minister Musa Aman.
The opposition parties hold the other 12 seats. But, they are in deep disarray after ambitious Sabah politicians said that they are rejecting political parties from Peninsular Malaysia such as Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Democratic Action Party (DAP).
The idea to hold the state polls earlier than the general election simmered after neighbouring Sarawak held its state polls last May and BN won a thumping victory against a bickering opposition.
With a population of 3.8 million, Sabah is Malaysia's second-largest state by land size after Sarawak, and home to the country's tallest mountain, Mount Kinabalu.
Sabah's main commodity exports are oil and gas, palm oil and cocoa, according to the state government's official website.
Parties' state of play
• State Assembly seats (60): 48 Barisan Nasional (BN) v 12 opposition - 7 Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), 4 Democratic Action Party (DAP), 1 State Reform Party
• An ongoing redelineation exercise will add 13 more wards to the State Assembly.
• Federal Parliament (25): 22 BN v 3 opposition (1 PKR, 2 DAP)
Each Parliament seat typically has between three and five State Assembly constituencies.
The Parliament seats are not contested in state polls, only during the general election.
To prepare for the state polls, a detailed evaluation of all the 60 seats asked by Datuk Seri Najib will be ready by next month.
"A positive report will mean an early election," a source told The Star.
Another reason for the touted April date is the constituency redelineation exercise which is under way that will result in an additional 13 state seats for Sabah, with most seen as clear pro-BN wards.
"The prerogative lies with the Chief Minister after discussion with the Prime Minister," said federal Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak, a Sabahan. "I am confident Sabahans will vote for continued stability and development."
Sabah BN is represented by Umno, Parti Bersatu Sabah, Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah, United Pasokmomogun Kadazan Organisation and the Liberal Democratic Party.
The opposition is hoping that tensions between two Umno warlords, Mr Musa and Mr Salleh, could improve their electoral chances.
Yesterday, DAP MP Liew Chin Tong wrote: "It is an open secret that Salleh is aiming to become the next CM (Chief Minister) and wants to foil Musa's initiative to call snap polls. Meanwhile Musa's move to call snap polls is, in part, a ploy to prevent Salleh from returning to state politics."
Sarawak and Sabah have been described as "safe deposit" states by Mr Najib, as most of the federal Parliament and state assembly seats are held by BN. A strong electoral performance in Sabah will put Mr Najib in a good position to call for nationwide polls, analysts say, signalling that the scandal involving state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd has found little traction in the rural state, just like what happened in Sarawak last May. The general election is not due until August next year, but there is widespread expectation that it will be called this year.
Politics in the state are very fractious with top politicians often breaking away to form new parties, often leading to multi-cornered electoral fights that give the winning edge to BN.
A former vice-president of Umno, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, has formed a new opposition party called Sabah Heritage Party. It is refusing to work with the United Sabah Alliance, a coalition of four opposition parties, and is not keen to work with the Pakatan Harapan alliance that includes PKR and the DAP.
"For now, it looks like a free-for- all in the opposition camp. It is the best time to strike," a Barisan official told The Star.