In Johor Election's Wake, Malaysian Politics Stay Turbulent

In Malaysia, politics never sleep, and the first quarter of 2022 has revealed new plots and plans. The recent state election in Johor has given the upper hand to the former ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), led by the Malay nationalist party UMNO. BN had a monopoly on power for over 61 years before being defeated in May 2018 by the opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH). The Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, which currently leads the government together with tenuous support from UMNO, has lost most of the seats owned by its leading party Bersatu. Ironically, PN and UMNO are allied in the government at the national level, but they are opponents on the state level. Further, UMNO president Zahid Hamidi warned that BN will not be collaborating with PN at the next general election, which is due to take place by 2023. Emboldened by its big wins in Johor and other state elections, UMNO has urged Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob—himself a leader of UMNO—to call an early general election sometime this year.

While BN has been rebuilding its base after winning several recent state elections, PH, once again an opposition coalition, continues to slide from power since losing control to PN in 2020. The coalition has been weakened by internal dissensions aggravated by a string of political losses and miscalculations. The Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Justice Party, or PKR) led by Anwar Ibrahim is hemorrhaging and fails to attract new voters and talent. Anwar explains his party’s poor image as having been tarnished by the mistakes of the PH’s 22 months in power from May 2018 to January 2020.

For that reason, Anwar decided his party would contest in Johor using its own logo rather than that of PH. As a result, PKR retained only one-fifth of the seats it had gained in 2018. Meanwhile, its coalition partners, the Democratic Action Party (DAP)—a party with historically strong ties to the Malaysian Chinese population—and the Islamist reformist party, Amanah, chose to collaborate with the new party, MUDA (literally, “young”). DAP retained 10 out of 14 seats, Amanah retained 1 out of 7, while MUDA, which is not part of the coalition but ran under its logo, won its first state assembly seat. MUDA was formed in 2021 and targets the youth vote in a new electoral environment where the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 last December, adding more than 7 million voters aged below 25 to the 15 million previously registered.

This election was also the test for two other new parties: Pejuang, formed by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in 2020, and Warisan, a Sabah-based party that expanded to peninsular Malaysia in December 2021. Warisan, formed in 2016, is led by former UMNO leader and ex-chief minister of Sabah State Shafie Apdal. While Pejuang and Warisan did not win any seats in Johor, both parties are searching for a new formula. The leaders of the three newcomer parties—MUDA, Pejuang, and Warisan—are indeed moving toward the creation of an alternative to PH. This could take many forms: their integration into the coalition, or the creation of a new one.

So far, Anwar Ibrahim has not been receptive to the idea of extending his coalition to these new outsiders. But more than a damaged reputation, Anwar’s PKR is suffering from political sclerosis, and the only cure would be a radical change in strategy, rhetoric, and leadership. As an exclusively Malay front, the incumbent PN fails to attract non-Malay votes, which means it will not be able to win enough seats to form a majority government on its own in the upcoming general election. To counter BN’s influence, PN should ally with PH. Meanwhile, on the PH side, the loss of Malay votes by both Keadilan and DAP is blatant; DAP’s outwardly pro-Chinese rhetoric and open criticism of pro-Malay policies has deterred nearly all Malay voters from supporting DAP candidates, as has the weakness of PH’s leadership. If PH and PN fail to collaborate, they risk exacerbating ethnic tensions and far-right populism.

A divided opposition is a highway for the return of UMNO. The weakness of PKR and PH, combined with the multiplication of ethnic Malay-based parties (Pejuang, Bersatu, Amanah, and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party) splitting the majority vote, has ensured UMNO’s recent victories. In fact, in most recent state elections in Melaka and Johor, the party and its coalition partners (Malaysian Indian Congress and Malaysian Chinese Assembly) needed only to maintain their base by making sure their supporters would go out to vote. UMNO’s sail is fully blown, and the leaders are heading for the general election more confident than ever, though the question of who will be the poster child for the upcoming election looms large.

Najib Razak, chairman of BN and former prime minister from 2009 to 2018, and Zahid Hamidi, president of UMNO, are part of the same faction, which is at odds with the current prime minister Ismail Sabri. Ismail wants to remain in power for the time being, a position largely supported by Bersatu (with whom he shares power) and by the decaying opposition. Last year, PN and PH signed a memorandum of understanding to prevent any attempt to unseat the government until July 2023. Ismail Sabri knows that in the case of an early election, he will not be UMNO’s choice to continue leading the government.

Najib has been actively campaigning in Johor, as he did previously in Melaka. In an interview with the author, Najib explained:

The election results in Johor clearly shows that the blue wave (BN) continues its swing upwards with BN votes increasing by 4.7 percent compared to Melaka. . . . For me personally, I feel somewhat vindicated despite the vicious personal attacks meted out against me, the people vented their support by the large crowds that gathered for my ground visits throughout the state.

Many did not believe the return of the controversial leader, embedded in a global financial scandal, was possible. Like Mahathir before him, Najib has been able to reinvent himself, and today, the leader has positioned himself as the sole credible contender to restart the Malaysian economy. Whether Najib will run for the highest post during the general election remains unclear. But the success of his campaign shows that UMNO’s base remains strongly supportive. This also means that, for now, an attempt by any faction to reform the party and to push the “court cluster” out is in vain. The UMNO general assembly was held last weekend, and the cracks in UMNO’s ranks are becoming more apparent between those who wish to stay in power together with PN and the majority of the party members who are leaning toward an early election. The story is still unfolding, and it will soon come to light if Najib’s way is UMNO’s way.

Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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