Different party flags fluttering for attention in Parit Jawa, Muar. (Photo: Kevin Zhang / ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)

Long Reads

The Johor State Elections: A Spiderweb of Spats, Splits and Surprises

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All eyes will look to Barisan Nasional as Johoreans head to the polls on March 12. Looking at the advantages BN faces going into the election and the fractured state of its opponents, BN has exceptionally strong chances of doing significantly better this time.

INTRODUCTION

On 12 March, Malaysia will hold yet another election. Prior to 2018, most states and the federal government operated on the same electoral cycle. However, following Barisan Nasional’s fall from power, Johor is now the fourth state to hold elections separately – and national polls may not be far behind.

Along with Melaka and Negri Sembilan, Johor is one of the ethnically-mixed and urbanised southern states won by Pakatan Harapan (PH) for the first time in 2018. Two years later, Johor, like Melaka, was seized by a newly-formed alliance of Malay-based parties. The political rejig resulted in a coalition with a mere two-seat majority in the state’s 56-seat assembly. Following the death of an assemblyperson late last year, this decreased to one.

Despite high numbers of Omicron cases in the state, Mentri Besar Hasni Mohammad advised the Johor sultan to dissolve the state assembly on 22 January, arguing that he needed a convincing majority to govern effectively. This justification is surprising, given the good working relationship between the state administration and the opposition. Instead, many speculate that the underlying drive is for UMNO and BN to secure a convincing victory in Johor which would generate momentum for early national polls. Indeed, UMNO Deputy President Mohamad Hasan has directly appealed to Prime Minister Ismail Yaakob to hold national elections as soon as possible.

Regardless of the rationale for the election, the results will be scrutinised for the smallest of insights. The southern state’s population of 3.8 million is the third-largest in the country, and its demographic composition and characteristics broadly map onto the national average. As with Malaysia as a whole, Johor is more than 70 per cent urbanised, with a more urban portion in the west and vast rural areas in the east, and its median monthly income mirrors the national average. The state is somewhat more ethnically diverse than the nation as a whole, with larger Chinese and Indian populations.

The timing of the election is key. Johor will be the first state to hold polls after the implementation of automatic voter registration and the lowering of the voting age to 18. The impact of both measures has increased the state’s voters from 1.8 million in 2018 to 2.6 million now. Due to the state’s importance and its enlarged voter base, the three coalitions are taking campaigning seriously – as are a number of new parties.

The next section will analyse recent voting trends in Johor, while the following part will analyse the campaigns and candidates in the upcoming polls. The final section will look at the implications.

RECENT ELECTIONS IN JOHOR

From independence until 2013, Johor was a bedrock of support for Barisan Nasional, as the coalition consistently scored 10 percentage points more in the state relative to the national average. BN leveraged the advantages of its coalition style of politics, which allowed its member parties to pool resources and strategically deploy candidates. In addition, it also benefited from Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system and general malapportionment which boosted the representation of the state’s less populated rural seats.

Poster of Barisan Nasional candidate for Penggaram, Ter Hwa Kwong, at a community hall on 6 March 2022. (Photo: Kevin Zhang / ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)

Other local dynamics further increased BN’s advantages in Johor. UMNO’s founding in the state and long association with nation-building has helped attract party members and aspiring leaders. In addition, the traditionalist version of Islam practised in Johor has not provided a hospitable terrain for the Islamic party, PAS. And, in contrast to Selangor and Penang, Chinese voters are less concentrated in specific urban seats, with a significant proportion living in small towns or rural areas. Thus, over time, Barisan Nasional has enjoyed a relatively hospitable terrain in Johor, and the contest for the Malay vote, in particular, has been more muted than elsewhere.

In 2004 as well as the decades before, BN enjoyed almost complete domination of the state legislative assembly, never losing more than a handful of seats to the opposition (Table 2). In 2008, the smaller BN members began to lose ground, however, with the DAP and PAS securing four and two seats, respectively.

In the 2013 state election, the number of UMNO seats was almost unchanged but its partners lost most of theirs, retaining only 6 out of their initial 18 seats. Conversely, that year members of Pakatan Rakyat secured an additional 14 seats. In 2018, the sweep of non-UMNO BN members was almost complete, as they were left with a mere two seats. However, what caused BN to fall that year was UMNO’s unprecedented loss of 15 seats to other Malay-led parties.

This seismic shift was enabled by significant changes in voter behaviour in 2018. Ibrahim calculates that, in the 2013 election, Malay support for BN was 83.3 per cent. This solid performance enabled the BN to retain 38 seats, despite a very low level of Chinese support. However, in 2018 Malay electoral support fell to 61.3 per cent, with the remainder going first to PH and then to PAS. The combination of solid non-Malay support for PH coupled with a small swing in the Malay vote lay behind the victories netted by PPBM, PKR, and Amanah.

This dynamic is explored further in Chart 1. The first category (in blue) represents seats where Malays constitute more than 70 per cent of the electorate. BN captured all but one of these super-majority seats in 2018. The second category (in orange) concerns seats where non-Malays collectively comprise more than 50 per cent. With PPBM contesting under the PH banner that year, Pakatan Harapan won all seats in this group.

The third and fourth categories (green and red) are seats where Malays constitute between 50 to 69 per cent of the electorate. Even though Malays are an absolute majority in these constituencies, the non-Malay vote can swing the outcome if it is unified. This dynamic is even more powerful in three-cornered fights if the Malay vote is split.

The heated competition in 2018 and many three-cornered fights meant widely varying margins of victory. Both UMNO and the DAP secured a substantial proportion of their victories by large margins, securing 7 and 10 seats, respectively, with majorities above 20 per cent (purple and orange bars in Chart 2). Amanah secured three, PPBM two, and PKR one seat with margins greater than 20 per cent.

Conversely, UMNO had six, PPBM one, and PKR, Amanah, and DAP each had two seats secured with less than a five per cent majority (blue bar in Chart 2). As regards UMNO, five of its six narrow majorities were secured in three-way contests, where the combined weight of Pakatan Harapan and PAS candidacies seriously reduced its winning margin.

When analysed comprehensively, the DAP and UMNO secured a substantial proportion of their seats by a healthy margin. PPBM in turn won a good proportion of its seats in the 10-20 per cent range, although its ability to repeat this feat in the same constituencies is debatable given the change in its political affiliation in 2020. PKR also looks vulnerable, given that three of its five seats were won with majorities under 10 per cent.

THE CAMPAIGN

Compared to its predecessor four years ago, this year’s election in Johor differs in important ways. In 2018, much of the attention was on national-level issues, specifically the 1MDB scandal and the imposition of GST. This year, the stand-alone election entails more attention on state-level issues. Given the COVID pandemic and economic downturn, the campaign manifestos of the three large coalitions share similarities, with frequent mention of social welfare initiatives, the need for economic reactivation, and the rising cost of living.

The Johor Barisan Nasional campaign is headed by caretaker Mentri Besar Hasni Mohamad, who is seeking another term. The BN manifesto is entitled A Stable Future, and has five key pillars, namely: economic progress; citizen welfare; youth outreach; administrative integrity; and political reform. The document puts considerable emphasis on economic issues, and lays out initiatives to help specific interest groups such as FELDA settlers, lower-income groups, and SME owners.

However, there is a clear political dimension to the document in that it frequently emphasises the need for political stability. The subtext is that Johor needs to return to the pre-2018 period when BN had a solid majority in the state assembly. The frequent changes in state leadership with three Mentri Besars since 2018 are held to have affected growth and investment levels. Greater support for BN, ideally in the form of a two-thirds majority, would enable investor confidence to return. This would be further underpinned by promised amendments to the state constitution to prohibit party-hopping. Other interesting campaign pledges include a commitment to redraw the boundaries of over-populated state seats; pledging to provide all state representatives with equal constituency allocations; and requiring all elected assemblypersons to declare their assets to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

With his genial manner and technocratic style, Hasni is very much at the forefront of the campaign. Beyond his merits, the chosen tactic is to focus on local-level issues. BN candidates in Johor have sought to move on from the corruption cases facing UMNO national leaders, arguing that voters have other priorities. This has not precluded highly publicised visits by former Prime Minister Najib Razak to the state, which has stolen the limelight from Hasni somewhat.

In terms of the breakdown of seats by BN party, UMNO has been allocated 37, MCA 15, and MIC four seats. In line with their traditional formula, UMNO is contesting in Johor’s Malay-majority constituencies, many of which are in rural areas. MCA is almost solely running in Chinese-majority and mixed seats in both urban and rural areas. Three of MIC’s seats are rural, Malay-majority seats, and the last is semi-urban and mixed.

In contrast to the BN campaign, which has come across as cohesive and organised, Pakatan Harapan’s has been marred by infighting. It has yet to clearly announce its choice for Mentri Besar … Differences in tactics and personalities between PKR on one side and the DAP and Amanah on the other have also come to the fore.

Perikatan Nasional’s manifesto is entitled For the Sake of Johor’s People. Of the Manifesto’s 8 pillars, integrity and corruption-free leadership stands first and foremost. Consequently, despite its membership in the ruling federal coalition, Perikatan Nasional’s campaign shares many similarities with PH’s. Relative to PH’s focus on anti-corruption and good governance, PPBM President Muhyiddin Yassin adds additional nuance to the charge, stating that it was BN’s corruption that caused it to betray the interests of the Malays.

As with Pakatan Harapan, PN makes reference to its tenure in government at the national level, with Muhyiddin emphasising his role as Prime Minister in disbursing financial assistance to needy citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given Muhyiddin’s tenure as Johor’s Mentri Besar and MP for Pagoh, PN is also capitalising on his prestige and links to the state – even though he is not running this time. PN has put forward Shahruddin Jamal, the former Mentri Besar under PH as the campaign head.

Poster of Perikatan Nasional Chairman Muhyiddin Yassin along a main road in Batu Pahat town on 5 March 2022. (Photo: Kevin Zhang / ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)

In terms of seat distribution, PPBM is contesting in 33 seats, PAS in 15 and Gerakan in 8. In contrast to UMNO, PPBM is fielding candidates in very diverse constituencies. This includes rural Malay-majority seats such as Rengit, Panti and Sedili, as well as urban, Malay-majority constituencies such as Larkin and Kempas. Interestingly, despite its status as a Malay-based party, PPBM is also fielding Chinese candidates in Chinese-majority seats such as Bekok, Skudai, and Mengkibol. This could be a conscious strategy to maximise the possibility of securing at least some seats. In contrast, PAS’ strategy is more focussed on running against its splinter party Amanah, with an almost total overlap in their seats.

As regards Pakatan Harapan, the coalition also frames this election with reference to national issues, including its interrupted tenure in power. PH has also made anti-corruption and clean governance the key pillars of its election message. However, the anti-corruption struggle is cast as a benefit to all Malaysians instead of a specific group. PH has framed a vote for BN as an endorsement of pervasive corruption, with allegations that UMNO leaders Najib and Zahid are forcing this snap state election to hasten the general election and avoid their impending imprisonment.

In contrast to the BN campaign, which has come across as cohesive and organised, Pakatan Harapan’s has been marred by infighting. It has yet to clearly announce its choice for Mentri Besar, although it is rumoured that it will field former Education Minister Maszlee Malik. Differences in tactics and personalities between PKR on one side and the DAP and Amanah on the other have also come to the fore. Awkwardly, PKR has decided to contest using its own logo as opposed to the PH symbol, which the other two parties have chosen to retain.

PKR has also differed from the DAP and Amanah in their approach to working with the newly-established Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA). The latter party, headed by Muar MP Syed Saddiq seeks to appeal to younger voters, and has proven popular on social media. Although MUDA is not officially a part of PH, Amanah and DAP came to an amicable arrangement with it, yielding six seats for it to contest in. In contrast, its negotiations with PKR were unsuccessful. In the end, MUDA has opted to run against PKR in one seat, Larkin.

In terms of seat allocation, PKR is running in 20, and Amanah and DAP are contesting 16 and 14 seats, respectively. Broadly, the parties have agreed to retain their 2018 constituencies while PKR, Amanah, and MUDA have divided up among themselves the seats that PPBM contested in 2018. Mirroring UMNO, PKR and Amanah are running in mostly rural or semi-urban Malay-majority seats, spanning those with a slight Malay majority to those with 80 per cent or more Malay voters. PKR has slightly more diversity in that it is also contesting in several urban Malay-majority seats and one mixed urban seat.This diversity may be necessary for PKR’s survival, given that it is running against UMNO in many seats. DAP’s unchanged seats mean that almost all its seats are either Chinese-majority or mixed; it is running against MCA (BN) in all, and Gerakan (PN) in half of them.

In addition to the three large coalitions, Johor’s political importance and larger voter base see a range of smaller and newer political parties also joining the fray. This year, there are no less than 239 candidates from many different parties, including a substantial number of independents. Consequently, most contests will be four-cornered, with a significant number of five-cornered fights. However, unless these new parties field known personalities, ideally with a track record in the communities where they are running, it will be difficult for them to make inroads. However, they may siphon off votes from the more established parties.

In addition to MUDA, Parti Pejuang (Pejuang) – established by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – could increase the election’s unpredictability. Squarely targeting Malay voters, the party is fielding 42 candidates in Malay-majority seats, and has some prominent figures among them. This overlap means that all UMNO contests are at least four-cornered – increasing the possibility of Malay votes being split multiple ways. That said, Pejuang may face an uphill battle in the state as Mahathir is less favourably perceived due to his past disagreements with the Johor royalty.

VOTING

In addition to the sheer number of contesting parties and candidates, this election differs from past polls in another key aspect. The passing of the automatic voter registration bill and the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 has significantly increased the size of the electorate and lowered its average age.

The combined impact of these bills means that the Johor’s electoral roll has increased from 1.8 to 2.6 million voters. About one quarter of the growth is due to the inclusion of voters aged 18-20, and the remainder comprises previously unregistered voters. Consequently, all state seats in Johor have increased by at least 20 per cent, with a significant number of urban areas growing by 50 per cent or more.

If PH does noticeably worse, and particularly if PKR performs as badly as it did in Melaka, Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership will come under serious question. This has been accentuated by his decision to shun the PH logo, which will leave all failures unquestionably on his shoulders.

Seats which now experience a proportionately large growth of voters are located within or around Johor Bahru. This affects a significant number of PH-held seats. Conversely, UMNO seats have grown less, given their smaller population base and potentially due to effective voter mobilisation efforts in the past. Nonetheless, even the most rural UMNO seat now has a substantial number of new voters.

As regards previously unregistered voters, conventional wisdom suggests that this group is unlikely to go to the urns – especially given resurgent COVID-19 numbers. However, it is worth questioning this premise. Given the depth and reach of BN grassroots networks in Johor and their consistent efforts to recruit members, it is likely that previously unregistered voters are consciously apolitical, anti-establishment, or have been discouraged from enrolling. All of these bode ill for BN even if they may not necessarily favour Pakatan Harapan. In addition, the very low take-up of overseas voting following its introduction for this election could be an indicator of widespread apathy among a demographic that has tended to favour the opposition.

There is also one powerful countervailing force in BN’s favour. Over its years in power, the coalition has built up a fantastic grassroots network and campaign machinery to mobilise people to vote come election time. This consistency is what underpinned the coalition’s surprisingly good performance in Melaka last year, where roughly the same number of people cast their vote for BN as in 2018. In contrast, pandemic fears or apathy drastically reduced the number of votes for Pakatan Harapan in the state. Next Saturday, it is a virtual certainty that BN supporters will turn up to vote. While many of the other voters may be ready for a change, they will need to make their own way to the polling stations – if at all.

IMPLICATIONS

All eyes will look first to Barisan Nasional and its performance on March 12. Given the way that the coalition has framed the election, even if they do not secure their target of a two-thirds majority they will need to win substantially more than 30 seats. All the heavy lifting will need to be done by UMNO which, in addition to retaining its base of Malay super-majority seats, has to reclaim Malay-majority seats that it lost to PKR, Amanah, and PPBM. The MIC may well retain its current holdings, and MCA could net a seat or two. If UMNO can do this convincingly with its smaller partners netting a seat or three, BN will carry the state.

In contrast to 2018, Pakatan Harapan is looking less cohesive and less appealing to voters. A drop in turnout or the loss of vote share to new parties could see PH lose an important number of seats. Of the PH component parties, the DAP looks the most secure, given where it is contesting, and the lower level of competition it is facing relative to its allies. In contrast, Amanah and PKR are looking vulnerable, particularly in more rural, Malay-majority seats that voted for the opposition for the first time in 2018. If PH does noticeably worse, and particularly if PKR performs as badly as it did in Melaka, Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership will come under serious question. This has been accentuated by his decision to shun the PH logo, which will leave all failures unquestionably on his shoulders.

Poster of Pakatan Harapan candidate for Penggaram, Gan Peck Cheng, on a vehicle on 7 March 2022. (Photo: Kevin Zhang / ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)

Perikatan Nasional also has a lot riding on this election. Given Muhyiddin Yassin’s association with Johor, a poor performance will weaken PN substantially. Mirroring UMNO’s role within BN, PPBM will need to score the big wins for PN. Despite its association with Johor, PN may repeat its performance in Melaka, where it netted a considerable number of votes but few seats. If PN cannot be a player in forming the next state government, this would raise questions about its utility as a coalition partner for PAS.

Looking at the advantages BN faces going into the election, this is the former ruling coalition’s to win. Given its 19 seats in 2018 in such an unfavourable environment, BN has exceptionally strong chances of doing significantly better this time. Should all the winds be in its favour and BN attains a two-thirds majority, pressure for early national elections will be well-nigh impossible to resist. However, should the coalition net above thirty seats but not secure a two-thirds majority, life in Johor will revert to its pre-election and COVID-afflicted state. There will be little excitement or justification for national elections soon after.


This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2022/23 published on 8 March 2022. The paper, its footnotes and annex can be accessed at this link.