Friday, March 12, 1999 Published at 23:24 GMT
Mahathir slugs it out in 'Wild East'
Almost 200 candidates are contesting 48 seats
By News Online's Joe Havely
State elections in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah have galvanised the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad into action.
For a poll that will have no direct effect on the overwhelming four-fifths majority he holds in the federal parliament, the prime minister has poured vast amounts of time and political resources into the campaign.
For Asia's longest serving ruler, the election of a new provincial government in a remote, largely jungle-covered corner of Borneo has been transformed into the toughest political challenge of his recent career.
Even partly officials publicly admit to the prospect of an uncomfortably close result.
Political analysts in Malaysia, abroad and - most critically - in Dr Mahathir's own party will be scrutinising the results for signs of any shift in political trends.
Dr Mahathir has faced severe criticism and unprecedented anti-government protests over his approach to the Anwar case and his handling of Malaysia's economy, which has taken a severe battering from Asia's economic downturn.
Accompanying him were most of his senior ministers and pledges of millions of dollars in development grants.
Rough and tumble
Politics in what is often called Malaysia's Wild East has frequently been a rough and tumble affair but apart from rumblings over possible independence its significance has rarely travelled beyond state-level.
Sabah has also been largely unaffected by the reformasi movement in the peninsular sparked by the Anwar case, the dominant issues instead being those of state rights and the grievances of the majority Christian Kadazandusun ethnic community.
Accusations of bribery
With the campaign becoming increasingly bitter, Dr Mahathir replied with a thinly veiled warning against voting for the opposition PBS telling voters only his party could ensure the continuation of state development programmes.
The federal government, he said, would "only give to the BN [National Front] government in Sabah. We will not help the opposition since we do not receive any assistance from them."
Mr Kitingan won Sabah's last state election in 1994. But he was pushed out of office weeks later when most of his party's deputies defected to the National Front after allegedly receiving sizeable bribes.
Now the PBS is hoping to capitalise on the federal government's unpopularity.
The recently formed social rights group ADIL, headed by Mr Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, has also accused the government of using threats and intimidation in a desperate bid to win votes.
"This is dirty politics," she said.
Whatever the case it may all be rendered meaningless in the political horse-trading and changing allegiances that will almost inevitably follow the results.