Parsing the UMNO-Bersatu Battle in Johor
UMNO has certain advantages in Johor, but its victory in the coming state elections is not assured.
In his book Protector?, Malaysian intellectual Chandra Muzaffar has the following to say about the Malays’ voting patterns in the 2018 election: the ‘UMNO [United Malays National Organization], despite all its flaws and foibles, captured 35% to 40% of the Malay vote,’ he explained, ‘making it the most popular Malay based party in the country.’ If he is right, then UMNO will easily retain power in the upcoming Johor state election. Johor is after all the party’s birthplace.
How confident is UMNO in securing the votes of Johor Malays? Arguably, the election is for the party — and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition it is part of — to lose. However, it must overcome the challenge from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), which remains a threat. To begin with, Johor is a state with mixed ethnicities, unlike Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis, which are predominantly Malay. In Johor, the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) is popular in the mixed-race, mostly urban seats with large numbers of voters. The Malays, on the other hand, live in more sparsely populated rural seats. Some of these seats contain FELDA (Federal Land Development Agency) settlements, which have traditionally been UMNO vote banks. UMNO has been and is capitalising on this; concentrating on rural areas will allow it to win seats without necessarily needing a large number of votes statewide.
Johor was an UMNO stronghold from the country’s independence in 1957 up to 2018. Subsequently, splits within the Malay political elites, which led to more than one political party claiming to represent the community, contributed to the unstable political situation in the state. Since the 2018 general election, Johor has changed chief ministers three times: PH’s Osman Sapian (May 2018 to April 2019), PH’s Sahruddin Jamal (April 2019 to February 2020), and BN’s Hasni Mohammad (incumbent since February 2020).
The upcoming election is UMNO’s best opportunity to wipe out Bersatu and PH. The party has been on a roll since 2019 after it helped BN won the Tanjong Piai by-election, which is a rural constituency in Johor.
After the Sheraton move in March 2020, BN’s majority in the state legislature was far from convincing. UMNO’s uneasy collaboration with its Malay nationalist rival Bersatu made the Johor government unstable. In the recent Melaka state election, Muhyiddin Yassin — Bersatu president, former prime minister, and former Johor chief minister — used the analogy ‘tekan butang’ (press the button) in one of his campaign speeches to demonstrate how he could to topple several state governments, Johor included.
BN’s majority in Johor was reduced to one after Bersatu leader Osman Sapian passed away last December. The possibility of Muhyiddin pressing the button became real.
The upcoming election is UMNO’s best opportunity to wipe out Bersatu and PH. The party has been on a roll since 2019 after it helped BN won the Tanjong Piai by-election, which is a rural constituency in Johor. UMNO campaigned hard for BN candidate Wee Jeck Seng and won by a landslide, which was one of the triggers of the Sheraton Move in February 2020. Critical to that victory was the UMNO-PAS collaboration through the Muafakat Nasional pact, which delivered Malay votes to the Chinese candidate.
The recent success in the Melaka election is another reason why UMNO is on cloud nine. There, it outmuscled its Bersatu rivals in Perikatan Nasional (PN) and defeated PH. Moreover, the opposition suffers from a leadership crisis: Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) was wiped off the electoral map in the last Sarawak election. UMNO Vice-President Ismail Sabri Yaacob succeeded Muhyiddin to become Prime Minister.
For decades, the Malays have demonstrated their loyalty to UMNO, even during times of crises, as Chandra has alluded. But UMNO should not presume that the outcome of the Johor poll will mirror its triumphs in Tanjong Piai or Melaka. In the 2019 Tanjong Piai by-election, the Malays were angered by the perception that PH lacked interest in their affairs — particularly on matters related to Islam and respect for Malay identity and the monarchy. These are no longer the concerns of Johoreans, who considered the Malay leadership in the state as restored after BN replaced PH in 2020. In the same vein, while UMNO won handsomely in Melaka in terms of seat numbers, it did so because of low voter turnout and PH votes swinging towards PN. Its share of popular votes did not change much from the 2018 general election.
Moreover, a bigger turnout and more opposition unity could result in a different outcome. Furthermore, the impact of electoral participation by new, automatically registered voters, especially youth, is currently unclear.
The recent flooding incident has also tainted UMNO’s image. Although the floods did not hit Johor as severely as other states, UMNO leaders were seen to have failed to act decisively. Malays support UMNO on the condition it behaves like their ‘protector’. The failure to address their issues will turn them away to an alternative party.
The main consolation for UMNO now is that the opposition is disunited. Bersatu’s nationalists cannot work with PH’s Democratic Action Party (DAP), PKR and Amanah. Bersatu has invested too much time distancing itself from its more secularist and multiracial partners of the past. Moreover, the presence of former PKR defectors in Bersatu will make the reunion of Bersatu and the parties in PH unlikely. PAS too was initially in two minds whether to work with UMNO or Bersatu before finally opting for the latter on 29 January. The PAS-Bersatu collaboration in Johor does not weaken UMNO’s advantage in securing Malay votes. PAS’ impact in Johor has traditionally been weak.
UMNO remains the leading party that commands the loyalty of the Malays, but as the Malay saying goes, beneath the calm waters, do not assume there are no crocodiles. There is no stopping Johor Malays from switching to Bersatu, which is essentially UMNO 2.0. Bersatu remains the only party in a direct standoff with UMNO as the party that protects the Malays. Any erosion of support for UMNO may also benefit PH, especially for those who feel Bersatu is no different from UMNO in terms of ideology, strategy and goals. To be sure, many who consider this an unnecessary election during times of crisis may not turn up to vote at all.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.