The recent by-elections in Johor are a shot across the bow for the Unity Government.
In the recent Johor by-elections, the Unity Government appeared to have emerged unscathed from the corruption saga involving Deputy Prime Minister and United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) president Zahid Hamidi. Digging deeper, however, the polls constitute a shot across the bow for Pakatan Harapan-UMNO (PH-UMNO), with a big swing in the Malay/ Muslim vote towards the opposition.
The September by-elections were held after the death of Salahuddin Ayub, who was a state assemblyman in Johor and an MP in the federal Parliament. The by-elections became unexpectedly heated after Zahid was granted a discharge not amounting to acquittal (DNAA) for his corruption case. This occurred just days before the polls. The sudden twist led Perikatan Nasional (PN) chairman Muhyiddin Yassin to accuse Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of political interference in the judicial process. Anwar had led PH into an alliance with former nemesis UMNO after last November’s General Election.
The by-election in the Simpang Jeram state seat serves as a good barometer of public perception towards PH-UMNO collaboration and the impact of Zahid’s DNAA. Some analysts raised the possibility that PN could wrest the state seat from PH-UMNO after the controversial court decision. This did not happen with PH-UMNO triumphing over PN in Simpang Jeram. The Pulai federal seat was seen to be a safer bet for PH-UMNO (in the end, PH-UMNO secured a win, albeit at a smaller margin against 2022).
At face value, PH-UMNO emerged unscathed from the DNAA saga. However, a closer look at Simpang Jeram indicates that PH-UMNO experienced a steady loss of the Malay vote; its victory was possible only due to non-Malays’ solid support for PH. If left unchecked, PH-UMNO’s loss of traction on the Malay ground would have implications going forward in the next general election.
Johor has traditionally been UMNO’s bastion. But the party’s traditional campaign of small-scale get-together events is becoming increasingly obsolete as a vehicle to attract (or even retain) Malay votes. UMNO needs to fundamentally re-evaluate how the party strives to engage its core voter base.
Simpang Jeram is a semi-urban seat with Malays forming just a notch above 50 per cent of the total electorate —a typical profile of ethnically-mixed seats scattered throughout the Peninsula’s West Coast. The combined vote share for PH-UMNO based on last year’s state election was 70 per cent (Table 1). In the by-election, the PH candidate received a lower 56.5 per cent of the vote as the coalition’s supporters switched over to Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), The Islamist party, which is part of PN, bagged a commendable 42 per cent of the vote, higher than the 30 per cent it secured in the 2022 state election.
By comparing the 2022 Johor state election with the recent by-election, a Most Similar Systems Design —comparing two cases which closely resemble each other apart from the independent variable impacting the dependent variable of interest — was applied. This was used to test the impact of PH-UMNO alliance and Zahid’s DNAA on the extent of “Green Wave” in Malaysia.
Table 1: Outcome of 2022 and 2023 electoral contests in Simpang Jeram state constituency
|2022 Johor State Election||2023 by-election|
|Turnout||54.7 % (21,897)||60.9% (24,571)|
|Barisan Nasional (UMNO)||28.3% (6,062)||Nil (supported PH)|
|Pakatan Harapan (Amanah)||40.9% (8,749)||56.5% (13,844)|
|Perikatan Nasional (PAS)||29.7% (6,350)||42.2% (10,330)|
A closer look at the election results provides a sense of how Malays and non-Malays voted in the by-election, as Malays and non-Malays are distributed unevenly across the eleven polling districts. Malays, as a share of electorate in each polling district, ranged from 26 to 84 per cent. Historically PAS has been a marginal player in Johor. PAS has struggled to gain traction with Malays in Johor due to differing interpretations on how to practise Islam. Traditionalist Islam is prevalent in Johor.
In Table 2 and Table 3, regression models were plotted with the share of Malays in each polling district measured against PAS’ vote share in 2022 and 2023 respectively. Using 50 per cent of Malays in polling districts as a reference point, the vote share for PAS has increased by 14 per cent between 2022 and 2023. The swing towards PAS among Malays is around 28 per cent since 2022. The support for PAS among Malays is estimated to be at least 65 per cent (if not higher) since PAS receives negligible support from non-Malays. (Table 3)
PAS Takes More Malay Votes
Table 2: Linear regression for Malays’ percentage and vote share for PAS in 2022 *
Table 3: Linear regression for Malays’ percentage and vote share for PAS in 2023 *
Conversely, the PH-UMNO collaboration has not delivered the intended goal of securing a sufficiently large Malay base as a bulwark against PN’s right-wing racial and religious narrative. Nonetheless, there is some consolidation as non-Malays remain solidly behind the Unity Government despite Zahid’s DNAA and perceptions that tackling corruption has taken a backstage. Non-Malays are likely more concerned about the “Green Wave” which PH-UMNO has harped upon during the by-election campaign. They would be expected to vote for PH-UMNO in the near term while putting aside their reservations about the Unity Government.
Simpang Jeram, in English, refers to the junction of water rapids. The recent by-election indicates that voting patterns are especially fluid and are getting even more so, a trend since 2018. PH and UMNO are both at crossroads, and their decisions on what to prioritise and how to frame key issues will shape the future contours of Malaysian politics. Johor has traditionally been UMNO’s bastion. But the party’s traditional campaign of small-scale get-together events is becoming increasingly obsolete as a vehicle to attract (or even retain) Malay votes. UMNO needs to fundamentally re-evaluate how the party strives to engage its core voter base. At the national level, escalating costs for basic necessities coupled with a shortage of essential goods have disproportionally affected low-income Malaysians, of which Malays are over-represented. The Unity Government needs to urgently tackle the cost of living concerns while increasing wages, particularly at the bottom 40 income percentile (B40).
In the upcoming Pelangai by-election to be held this Saturday, UMNO and not PH would be contesting against PAS. Should PAS manage to wrestle this UMNO “fixed deposit” which the latter won merely a year ago with a comfortable majority of 4,000 votes, it would serve as another indicator that Zahid’s DNAA is still stirring some controversy on the Malay ground.
Kevin Zhang is a Senior Research Officer, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.