The Johor state assembly has been dissolved, paving the way for snap state elections to be held within the next 60 days. For those UMNO leaders seeking to boost their party’s momentum, this might not be the wisest of moves.
People are used to Malaysian elections being regular affairs with national and most state elections held simultaneously. However, following Barisan Nasional’s 2018 defeat, this norm – along with so many others – no longer seems to hold. Over the past months, state elections have been held in Sabah, Melaka and, most recently, Sarawak.
Johor will be next. The state assembly was dissolved on Saturday, January 22, meaning that an election must be held within 60 days from that date. The official reason is that – following the death of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) leader and former Johor Menteri Besar, Osman Sapian – the state’s governing coalition has the slimmest of majorities.
Following the Sheraton Move in February 2020, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government in Johor dissolved, losing its majority as PPBM assemblypersons (and several others) crossed the floor. The subsequent coalition in power consisted of 29 members: United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) (14); Malaysian Indian Congress (2); PPBM (12); and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) (1). Following Osman’s passing, the governing coalition has only 28 members against PH’s 27 in Johor’s 56-member state assembly. UMNO leaders argue that the administration is unstable and can be controlled by the opposition.
While the argument is arithmetically attractive, the result may be a net negative. First, Malaysia would be ill-advised to risk coronavirus super-spreading events. The ultra-contagious Omicron variant has already been detected in the country and experts warn of another surge. Second, northern and eastern Johor were hit by floods earlier this month, with significant damage and thousands displaced. Third, the constitutional limit for the current electoral term is up in September next year anyway, so there is little gain from early polls.
A closer look dispels the argument that the government is unstable. Hasni Mohammad, the Menteri Besar, has kept UMNO and PPBM members from each other’s throats and has established cordial relations with PH. Beyond providing equal constituency allocations to all assembly members, he has been able to pass key bills in bi-partisan fashion – not least the recent move to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. Hasni is also said to enjoy a good working relationship with the Sultan, who has come out in the past against ‘excessive politicking’ by Johor’s elected representatives.
… there is no guarantee that elections will yield a convincing or stable majority for Barisan Nasional. Instead, we could see a period of prolonged negotiations to secure another wafer-thin mandate.
The real reasons for an early election are elsewhere. UMNO leaders are buoyed by the performance of their coalition – Barisan Nasional (BN) – in the Melaka elections last November. Johor is seen as even friendlier terrain, as UMNO was born in Johor Bahru and has an unshakeable grip on the eastern half of the state. Memories of the short-lived PH administration are lukewarm at best, with its two Menteri Besar – Osman Sapian and then Sahruddin Jamal – not remembered for their dynamism.
Another victory in Johor would then give cause for UMNO to argue that the time for national elections is nigh. This would benefit former Prime Minister Najib Razak and current UMNO Party President Zahid Hamidi, both currently caught up in multiple court cases. However, the most vocal advocates are former Johor Menteri Besar Khaled Nordin and Nur Jazlan, former Deputy Minister of Home Affairs. Swept from their parliamentary seats in 2018, these two Johoreans have been left out of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri’s cabinet.
However, there are also risks to UMNO in going to an early election in Johor. Holding elections now may not be well-received by the state’s populace who, fearing an Omicron-fuelled dent to the economic recovery, would justly argue that there are other priorities. Also, the recent lowering of the voting age means the participation of a large cohort of young first-time voters, many of whom have had their education and career prospects severely affected by the pandemic. Which way they will swing is difficult to determine.
But, perhaps most poignantly, the election will be a three-way contest – opening the doors for unpredictable outcomes. Although PH is on the back foot, it will nonetheless retain a number of seats. While the 2018 gains by Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Amanah are vulnerable, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) is likely to hold many of the urban, mixed constituencies it has held since 2013.
The Melaka election also showed that a PPBM and PAS coalition has traction among civil servants and Malay urbanites who, while not ready to vote for PH, are open to alternatives. In addition, while PPBM has a minimal presence in Melaka, the party has some grassroots machinery in Johor. This is particularly the case in the northwest of the state, in and around Muhyiddin Yassin’s parliamentary seat of Pagoh. As for PAS, while the party has polled poorly among Johoreans, it has some support in pockets such as Mersing, home to fishermen from Kelantan and Terengganu.
Thus, reflecting Malaysia’s more fluid political situation, there is no guarantee that elections will yield a convincing or stable majority for Barisan Nasional. Instead, we could see a period of prolonged negotiations to secure another wafer-thin mandate. Hasni has been rather unenthusiastic about the polls – saying that he cannot ignore what coalition members are saying, but also that the more important question is why the elections need to be held – rather than when they should be held. He, more than UMNO warlords who have nothing to lose, is keenly aware that he may have little if anything to win.
Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.