Commentary: This Johor state election has been a disaster for everyone except Barisan Nasional and Najib
The pressure will be on Malaysia Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob to capitalise on the landslide win in the Johor state election to complete the UMNO-led coalition’s comeback, says James Chin.
HOBART: Barisan Nasional (BN)’s landslide win in the Johor state election on Saturday (Mar 12) has shaken up the Malaysian political environment.
Sweeping 40 of the 57 seats to a two-thirds majority, the BN coalition appears to have aced the test of public support ahead of the next general election (GE15).
All eyes will now be on Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, also vice-president in BN’s largest party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Will he call for the GE15 this year, rather than wait for mid-2023 when the parliamentary term ends?
The pressure is on Ismail Sabri to capitalise on BN’s second massive victory at the polls in a matter of five months.
BN’s victory in Johor comes after it stormed back to power with a two-thirds majority in the Melaka state election in November 2021.
Some might almost consider it BN’s third victory, after the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) coalition swept up more than 90 per cent of the seats in Sarawak in December 2021.
While BN officially sat out the election, GPS was as good as Sarawak’s BN, comprising parties that contested under its banner until BN’s GE14 defeat in May 2018.
BARISAN NASIONAL PREPARES ITS COMEBACK
Clearly, there is political momentum for BN. But how long will it last?
Most in BN believe they will achieve resounding success if GE15 is held in the second half of this year. After the win in Melaka, UMNO was already gunning for an early election. It will certainly feel more confident after Johor.
This would make for a poetic comeback after BN’s historic loss at the hands of Pakatan Harapan (PH) four years ago.
But there is a complication: Ismail Sabri won’t be in a hurry for GE15.
Ismail Sabri is not in the same internal faction as UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi nor its most influential politician, former prime minister Najib Razak. Ismail Sabri will be wary about being replaced as prime minister by someone aligned to Zahid and Najib.
So it won’t be surprising if Ismail Sabri tries to bide his time until the UMNO party elections for a chance to consolidate support for him. But this may or may not happen before the GE, so he will avoid appearing to put self-interest above the party.
The reality is that the UMNO grassroots will support Zahid and Najib, because they have delivered Melaka and Johor, it's a case of everybody wanting to follow the winner.
UMNO will not want to squander political momentum. One key reason BN might have done so well in Melaka and Johor was the low turnout. Only 54 per cent of Johor voters showed up, even lower than the 65.9 per cent in Melaka. Voters were said to be concerned about their health amid an Omicron surge or lethargic after living under COVID-19 restrictions.
If Malaysia successfully transits to the endemic phase, such concerns will fade and high turnouts could mean danger for BN.
ELECTORAL DISASTER FOR ANWAR IBRAHIM AND THE OPPOSITION
For the opposition, the Johor election has been nothing short of an electoral disaster. Pakatan Harapan has been dealt a massive blow, taking home only 14 seats with its ally MUDA.
PH said it will conduct a post-mortem to find out what went wrong. But disunity within the coalition and internal party problems were in plain sight in the leadup to the polls.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim should not have allowed his party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), to use its own logo - a sure sign to voters that PH was no longer a credible coalition.
Then there were the internal feuds in the Democratic Action Party (DAP) over candidate selection and the unhappiness among PH supporters about giving seats to MUDA, the new youth-led party.
MUDA will represent an interesting dilemma: It was given seven seats to contest in its political debut but only delivered one. How many seats will PH give to MUDA at GE15? There will be tremendous internal opposition. MUDA did not capture the youth vote for the coalition as hoped. In fact, data I have seen suggests more youths voted for the mainstream parties rather than MUDA.
But Anwar himself might be PH’s biggest problem: He seems to have lost his political antenna since the fall of the PH government in February 2020 and was ridiculed later for failing to prove he had the support to take power.
PH has now suffered three successive defeats in Melaka, Sarawak and Johor. The coalition will have to think carefully if it wants Anwar leading it to the next election. A PH with Anwar as their prime minister candidate, in my view, is doomed to lose.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO MUHYIDDIN YASSIN AND MAHATHIR MOHAMAD?
Muhyiddin Yassin will also be disappointed by the poor showing of his Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition. But as part of the ruling coalition at the federal level, it will probably stay in the game and give BN a fight at the next GE.
Mahathir Mohamad will be licking his wounds after all 42 of his Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang) candidates lost, garnering so few votes as to all lose their electoral deposits.
Mahathir will not take this total rejection by the Johor voters well. But he has lost influence among Malay voters and it is hard to see how Pejuang can mount any sort of credible opposition. If we take the voting pattern of the Malay voters in Melaka and Johor, we see them returning to UMNO in search of political stability.
Having seen three regime changes in the past four years, with both Muhyiddin and Mahathir having been at the helm, they aren’t convinced either will be a figure of stability.
Looking into UMNO’s history offers a possible future for Pejuang and Muhyiddin’s Bersatu: In 1987 after a split in UMNO, Parti Melayu Semangat 46 was established by ex-UMNO members to challenge their old party. Eight years later and little to show for it, the party folded and its members went back to UMNO.
If Bersatu is unable to perform better in GE15, we can expect Bersatu to fold up and return to UMNO. The alternative is equally unattractive: To go back into a struggling PH and start again. Pejuang, on the other hand, is unabashedly Mahathir’s party and will last as long as he is around.
NAJIB RAZAK MIGHT BE THE BIGGEST WINNER
The upper hand now is clearly with UMNO and BN. The opposition needs to get their act together, even if it means a total reset. An early GE will destroy their chance to do this and BN knows it. Perhaps the biggest twist is this: The biggest individual winner in the Johor election is a person who was not even a candidate.
Najib Razak, better known as “Bossku” to his supporters, remains BN’s star campaigner and most potent vote-getter. He attracted crowds on the election trail wherever he went and can claim full credit for the Johor results. A conviction and ongoing trials related to the 1MDB scandal seem to have done little to weaken his pull, unless there are fresh developments that destabilise faith in him.
Until then, there is no doubt Najib has shown he can deliver votes for UMNO and BN. Everybody loves a winner and Najib might get the last laugh yet as UMNO’s kingmaker.
James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.