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Malaysia: Johor State Election Will Reshape The Political Landscape – Analysis

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UMNO will dominate through party fragmentation

The coming Johor State Election to take place on 12th March will most probably redefine the Malaysian electoral landscape. Both sides of the political scene are divided, where political parties intend to run individually, making this the most politically fragmented election since federation back in 1957. 

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The Johor State Assembly was dissolved last January under pretexts the UMNO government didn’t have a stable majority. Some pundits claim this is a test election to determine whether UMNO go alone in the coming federal election. More sceptical pundits claim this is part of a ploy by the UMNO “court cluster” to engineer an out to serving any prison time. 

However, this election metaphorically is just like throwing the ‘cards’ up in the air to see where they land. The result could completely redefine the shape of the new political landscape for the next decade. At the minimum, the state election will define the respective bargaining powers of each political party in forming new coalitions to contest the coming federal election. 

Johor will also be a litmus test for 700,000 new voters, as the voting age has now been lowered from 21 to 18 years old. Voters under 21 will make up 30% of the states 2.4 million voters. 

Government parties are in disarray with all bets off between UMNO, Bersatu and PAS running individually. UMNO expects to improve substantially from the 14 seats it currently holds, and take out as many as possible of Bersatu’s 11 seats held in the last state assembly. UMNO strategists also believe that it is possible to win a few PKR seats as well. The MIC should hold the 2 seats it currently holds, and there are some expectations that the MCA may be able to make some inroads into DAP’s 14 seats. Possible wins MCA may be hoping for are Bekok, Tangkak, and Pekan Nanas. 

UMNO’s electoral objective is not simply to win the state election and form government. UMNO wants to weaken Bersatu so much in its “home state” and destroy it as a viable electoral force in GE15. A poor performance by Bersatu would lead to members deserting back to UMNO. UMNO’s secondary electoral objective would be to hit PKR as hard as possible lowering its electoral representation in Johor to just a couple of seats. Very vulnerable seats for PKR include Pemanis, Bukit Naning, and Semerah.

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Bersatu won their 11 seats with the ‘magic’ of Mahathir Mohamed on the hustings giving out a message that was received by the electorate back in 2018. By his side was Muhyiddin Yassin in his home state of Johor, who must go it alone this time around. Muhyiddin has been attacking the UMNO ‘court cluster’ hard. This has resulted in verbal slinging matches with Najib Razak, after Muhyiddin claimed both Najib and Zahid Hamidi came to visit him asking for assistance over their respective court cases. 

Najib with 4.7 million followers on Facebook is an anti-hero on the hustings. The scope and extremities of the 1MDB financial scandal didn’t have the same shock and awe in the kampongs as it did in the towns and cities. Najib is seen by many as politically persecuted by Mahathir. He is politically a winner in the Malay heartlands, well received on the hustings.

For Bersatu, the Johor election is critical. Johor is Bersatu’s powerbase, but this powerbase was taken from UMNO, which wants it back. Perhaps the dirtiest fights will be between Bersatu and UMNO, rather than UMNO and the opposition. 

Its difficult to see how PAS can extend its influence in Johor. Although Johor is strongly Malay within many rural areas, Johor Malays think very differently than those Malays on the East Coast in Kelantan and Terengganu. The true PAS powerbase is there. 

In Johor, the opposition is in turmoil, which is much more complex. PKR has decided to run on its own party logo rather the Pakatan Harapan logo along side the DAP and Amanah. This has led to a lot of criticism and disappointment from the DAP and Amanah. Secondly on the ground there is a lot of discontent from PKR members over candidate selection. There was also a factional feud between Johor DAP chief Liew Chin Tong and incumbent Skudai assemblyperson Tan Hong Pin and his group of four assemblypersons that almost destabilized the DAP. This was only settled by promising Tan Hong Pin a federal seat next election if he stood down from the state assembly contest. DAP holds 11 out of its 14 state seats with electoral margins that makes them almost unwinnable to other contenders. 

Amanah has 6 seats in the old state assembly, where Kemelah, Serom, Senggarang, and Pulai Sebatang, might be under danger from UMNO or another Barisan Nasional component party. Amanah strongly had the patronage of Mahathir last election, which was a major factor back in 2018. 

Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman’s Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) has made an electoral agreement with DAP and Amanah to run in 6 yet unknown seats. MUDA has not been able to come to any agreement with PKR. During the last election, PKR ceded a number of seats across to Bersatu and Amanah, which effectively cost the party parliamentary numbers. Giving any seats over to MUDA would potentially lead to a grassroots revolt, where many younger PKR members are already jealous of the electoral opportunities given up for MUDA so easily. Many party members are already disappointed over some seat selections, and the possible candidature of Maszlee Malik as PKR’s MB candidate.

The reappearance of Rafizi Ramli is rumbling up friction between PKR members who are staunchly behind Anwar, and those who believe its time for PKR to go in new directions with a young generation of candidates. 

Johor is very important for MUDA. The future position of MUDA in any opposition coalition will depend upon its electoral performance. The DAP and Amanah would like MUDA to woo the youth vote. However, MUDA is still very much a grouping without a policy. No one as yet really knows what they stand for. This election is about how much influence MUDA will have going into GE15.

WARISAN is also testing the water in Johor, announcing they will run in 6 seats. Word on the ground is WARISAN will only have a serious attempt in one seat. There are already reports of Bersatu members defected to WARISAN in Tanjung Plai. 

All the political parties have given the election to UMNO by default. Crowed contests which might by 3 way, 4 way, or even 5 way, will make it possible for UMNO and BN candidates to win the constituency by as little as 25% of the vote. UMNO will win not because they are strong, only because both sides of politics are in disarray. 

This is the new reality. The latest official population figure indicate that 69.6 % percent of the electorate is Bumiputera. A strong UMNO win will put the party back in where it was before 2018. Bersatu and the opposition will be greatly weakened. Malay politics within UMNO will dominate the country’s politics once again.

Bersatu may have to take stock after this election and become a niche party. How well they can hold up to the UMNO vote is the question here. Has Bersatu been able to differentiate itself from UMNO enough to be seen as a credible alternative? Johor will answer this question.

For the opposition, it goes back to how much the people were disappointed by their failure to deliver when in government. The electorate is harshly punishing them for their failure to deliver, when it all wasn’t their complete fault. Post Johor should be a time for reckoning and renewal. The opposition can rebuild a new credible front. The opposition can take in the new blood through MUDA, WARISAN, and even Gerakan Independent. Everyone will know who has the cards after the election. 

The Johor state election is a prelude to the real battle. The battle for the presidency of UMNO. This has to be fought out before the next general election occurs. This will complete the reshaping of Malaysia’s political landscape. Back to the future. 

Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here 

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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