KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysia’s biggest political party Umno appears to be in disarray as it tries to position itself ahead of the Sabah state election, as several local chiefs engage in a power struggle over who should be leading its campaign.
Umno became the opposition party in Sabah after losing the state in the May 2018 General Election, but it is hoping to supplant Parti Warisan Sabah in the Sept 26 polls by winning most of the 73 state assembly seats.
Warisan is led by former Sabah chief minister Shafie Apdal, 63.
It is also allied to federal opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) and to the group of MPs led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Warisan and its coalition allies were in firm control of Malaysia’s easternmost state from 2018, until at least 13 of its assemblymen jumped ship to support Tan Sri Musa Aman, a former Sabah chief minister from Umno.
The toppling of Warisan was thwarted after Datuk Seri Shafie managed to persuade the state governor to dissolve the assembly.
The state polls will be held on Sept 26, with nominations on Sept 12.
Mr Musa, 69, an arch-enemy of Mr Shafie, is leading one faction of Umno against Warisan and PH in the looming election.
Mr Musa felt betrayed that the assembly was dissolved instead of allowing him to take over.
“We still have three years to go till the end of the term of the assembly. It is not necessary for an election now,” Mr Musa had said on July 30.
He was chief minister for 15 years from 2003 until May 2018, when Mr Shafie took over.
The central leadership of Umno, which claims membership of more than three million, has appointed a second Sabah chieftain to lead the party in the September polls. He is current Umno Sabah chief Bung Moktar Radin.
But the appointment of Bung Moktar is opposed by 12 Sabah Umno divisions – out of the total 25 divisions – which said they were not consulted on the matter.
The 12 are led by the third Sabah chieftain, former Cabinet minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan, 54.
Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman said Bung Moktar would damage Umno’s brand should he lead the campaign as he is facing corruption charges.
“Sabah has many high-calibre leaders and to appoint someone with personal problems is a huge insult to us and voters in Sabah,” Mr Abdul Rahman told the media last Tuesday.
Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, himself facing corruption charges, defended the decision for Bung Moktar to lead the campaign, citing his position as head of Umno in Sabah.
There is a fourth local chief who could spoil Umno’s plan to recapture the state assembly – the younger brother of Mr Musa.
Datuk Seri Anifah Aman, 66, has left Umno and now heads Parti Cinta Sabah (Love Sabah Party), which hopes to be the third force.
He had this to say of his older brother on Aug 10: “As a Sabahan, I appreciate what Musa has done, but I think the time has passed and he should let new people take over.
“It’s time to move on. What he had done previously might be right for that particular time, but the taste has changed.”
Adding to the confusion of political parties and strong personalities, Umno will head into the election as part of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) alliance that rules the country.
PN is headed by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. Bersatu has its own ideas on who should be the next Sabah chief minister should PN win – the fifth local leader Hajiji Mohd Noor, 66.
Datuk Seri Hajiji left Umno for Bersatu when the new party formed a Sabah branch after the 2018 election.
The Warisan coalition led by Mr Shafie controlled 45 of the 65 state seats before 13 of them switched to Mr Musa’s side, leading to the assembly’s dissolution.
In the Sept 26 polls, an expanded 73 wards will be up for grabs.