Inter- and Intra-Coalition Competition in Johor – a Kueh Lapis?
There are many different dynamics at play when one examines the tenuous nature of the Perikatan Nasional-led state government in Johor. Think political battles within and without.
Following February’s historic “Sheraton Move” which in one fell swoop reconfigured Malaysia’s ruling coalition at the national level, Johor’s state government was the first to fall. With Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) crossing the floor, Pakatan Harapan (PH) lost its majority in the Johor state assembly to the newly-forged Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition.
At present, Perikatan Nasional Johor is comprised of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s PPBM, Muafakat Nasional and a former member of Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) that is now independent. Muafakat Nasional is made up of former ruling coalition Barisan Nasional and the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS).
However, while there is a new administration in town, PN Johor’s hold on power is tenuous and riven by internal divisions. Perhaps the best way of understanding the dynamics at play is by invoking the appeal of Kueh Lapis, a three-layered cake with an addictive yet complex taste.
The first “layer” is the contest between Perikatan Nasional and the recently-ousted Pakatan Harapan (PH). Despite PPBM’s departure, Pakatan Harapan is still a formidable force, with 27 assembly persons out of a total 56 seats. Should even one person cross the floor, the state assembly will be hung (see chart).
PH Johor Chief Aminolhuda Hassan has claimed that his coalition does, in fact, command a simple majority and has called for a no-confidence vote. However, this was put on hold earlier in May, following Johor Sultan Ibrahim’s rejection of any “disruption” to the assembly’s proceedings. While the state’s ruler is very influential, calls for the no-confidence vote may well re-surface in the weeks ahead.
The second “layer of the cake” is the competition between PPBM and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to lead PN in Johor. Following the change of government, the Chief Minister’s post was taken from PPBM member Shahruddin Jamal and given to an UMNO member, Hasni Mohamed. The argument is that UMNO has 14 representatives in the state assembly (its Barisan Nasional partner Malaysian Indian Congress has another 2) versus PPBM’s 11. However, the arrangement in Johor is the converse of the national power-sharing formula, which saw PPBM securing the bulk of cabinet positions. Furthermore, the state is Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s home turf and one of PPBM’s heartlands.
The new administration’s slew of appointments of UMNO members to head state government-owned corporations raised more hackles in the PPBM ranks. Former Johor Chief Minister and PPBM state assemblyman for Kempas Osman Sapian claimed that some PPBM members even had to step down from their positions to make way for the UMNO appointees. In late April, Mohd Solihan Badri, PPBM Johor secretary and assemblyman for Tenang, wrote a public letter stating that “Bersatu’s participation in GLCs, along with political appointments should be what unites us in PN”. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has moved to defuse the situation by calling for a meeting of state leaders from UMNO and PPBM.
Any of the three ‘layers’ or dynamics may upset the fragile equilibrium, with another coalition coming to power or the assembly being dissolved to hold new elections.
The third “layer of the cake” is the struggle for power and influence within PPBM Johor between factions aligned to Muhyiddin Yassin and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. This is by far the most intriguing layer; after all, it was the elaborate machinations of the dynamic duo that led to the historic collapse of Barisan Nasional federal government in 2018. While Mahathir has a national presence, Muhyiddin has deep roots in the state, solidified by his 42 years as an MP for Pagoh and his Chief Ministership spanning almost a decade.
Despite his recent sacking from PPBM, Mahathir is not without allies in Johor, including Muar MP Syed Saddiq and PPBM state chief Mazlan Bujang. Syed Saddiq led PPBM’s Youth Wing and has cultivated a popular social media presence. Mazlan Bujang played an instrumental role in establishing PPBM party branches throughout Johor and is popular among the grassroots. In the days ahead, PPBM Johor division leaders aligned to Muhyiddin may attempt to unseat Mazlan Bujang as the party’s state chief.
While Johor’s state assembly convened peacefully – and anti-climactically – in mid-May, this may not be the case in the weeks ahead. Any of the three ‘layers’ or dynamics may upset the fragile equilibrium, with another coalition coming to power or the assembly being dissolved to hold new elections. In short, the PN coalition in Johor is sitting pretty for now, but disturbances in any of the layers might lead to a confection less sweet.
Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Kevin Zhang is a Senior Research Officer, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.