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Johor Election Takes Malaysia Back to the Future
Opposition needs to rebuild from scratch
By: Murray Hunter
State election results over the weekend in the southern Malaysian state of Johor came in as the majority of political analysts predicted, with disaster for the opposition reform coalition Pakatan Harapan and a different kind of disaster for the Barisan Nasional, whose de facto leaders have been indicted or convicted of multiple charges of corruption.
Now the reality of what just happened needs to be digested. Many had long been talking about the United Malays National Organization and the Barisan Nasional (BN) it leads becoming the dominant political force once again as voters, remembering what they thought were the good old days, tired of four years of constant political tumult. The nation has to live with this and the many consequences arising from it.
Among the weightiest of them is what to do about “Bossku,” the former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been convicted of multiple counts of corruption and money laundering in by far the biggest financial scandal in Malaysia’s history and faces 12 years in prison. UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi –who himself faces scores of corruption charges that could put him in prison for decades, “dedicated” the election to Najib and said the Barisan Nasional couldn’t have won without him.
The nation is thus at a crossroads. It looks increasingly likely to be led once again by some of Southeast Asia's most corrupt leaders on a downward spiral of rent-seeking, favoritism, religious and ethnic nationalism and economic mismanagement.
Nonetheless, the Barisan gained a resounding victory, achieving a two-thirds majority in the Johor state assembly. Component parties won 40 (UMNO 33, MCA 4, MIC 3) of the 56 seats in the state assembly. The coalition received 43.11 percent of the popular vote, up from 40.4 percent in 2018.
The Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, which caught the country’s imagination with a reform agenda in 2018 and actually won the state government, lost 15 seats, leaving it with a residual 12 in the new assembly and deep questions over its direction. The Democratic Action Party, the ethnic Chinese component of the coalition, now has only 10, a loss of four. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat has only one seat, a loss of six, and the moderate Islamic party Amanah one, a loss of five. Seven PKR candidates lost their deposits to the Electoral Commission (EC), while four Amanah candidates lost theirs.
Syed Saddiq’s Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), in its first participation in an election, gained one seat in Puteri Wangsa of the seven it contested, an indication that hopes the youth vote would materialize to propel it onto the national stage didn’t materialize.
All 43 Parti Pejuang candidates lost their deposits with the election committee, an indication that long-time leader Mahathir Mohamad, who started the party after resigning from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, which he started to oust Najib from power in 2018, is increasingly a spent force. For the 96-year-old Mahathir, who has dominated Malaysian politics for 40 years, the wisest thing would be to retire at the end of this parliamentary term and not recontest his Langkawi seat. His son Mukhriz will have a tough fight in the adjoining seat of Jerlun to just hold it. Candidates for two smaller parties, WARISAN and Parti Bangsa Malaysia (PSM), also lost their deposits.
Fifty-five percent voter turnout
The 55 percent voter turnout was one of the lowest in Malaysian electoral history. Only 1.39 million of the 2.6 million registered voters turned out. However, this was almost 100,000 more voters than the 2018 state election, held in conjunction with the federal election, as a huge cohort of new voters aged 18 to 21 as a result of legislation that went into effect at the start of the year came to the polls.
Many of the 1.2 million that failed to vote didn’t leave Singapore or their places of work around the peninsula to come and vote. The 36 percent voter turnout in the DAP stronghold of Skudai indicates apathy and/or disappointment with political representatives.
The young voters, eligible to vote for the first time, appeared apathetic or disenchanted with the political process. Fear of Covid-19 still prevails around the country, especially with daily reported cases up to around the 33,000 mark.
Pundits claimed that a low voter turnout would greatly advantage BN, but this doesn’t really appear to have been the case. The popular Pakatan Harapan vote went up from 255,990 in 2018 to 367,525 in this election.
The implications for Malay-centric parties
The Johor state election has settled the argument over which is the dominant Malay-centric party. UMNO has shown it may be able to win outright in the peninsula with its two once-moribund coalition partners the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress. With support from GPS in Sarawak and UMNO Sabah, BN can once again become the ‘natural’ government in Malaysia without serious challenge.
However, UMNO didn’t win from a position of strength. Members of the federal coalition it shares power within Putra Jaya ran separately and were found wanting against UMNO. Various reasons have been given for BN’s electoral success in Johor. Some say it was Ismail Sabri’s ‘good’ job as prime minister, others say it was electioneering by Najib Razak, where Najib as persona became an election issue himself.
Zahid praised deputy president Mohamed Hasan as the deputy campaign chief. However, one thing is for sure: BN’s election strategists were able to outmaneuver all the other candidates and parties in the election and can’t be underestimated in future elections.
Politically former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is greatly weakened, being defeated in his own stronghold of Johor. Although his Malay-centric Perikatan Nasional coalition, made up of Bersatu and PAS, garnered 24.04 percent of the popular vote, the coalition was trounced by the Barisan, and could only muster three seats (Bersatu 2, Pas 1), a loss of nine from the 2018 state election. This gives Muhyiddin much less influence federally from now on. Most Bersatu seats are in danger of being lost to UMNO next general election, and all know this. Whether support can be refocused into the winning constituencies next general election is a great challenge, particularly to Bersatu.
For PAS, its heartlands are along the East Coast and Kedah. PAS must refocus on holding what seats they have in their own heartlands, rather than try to expand their electoral influence nationally. If PAS doesn’t heed this warning, they could be weaker after the next election.
The opposition as a grouping will need to think radically to remain relevant. The Memorandum of Understanding between Pakatan Harapan and Prime Minister Ismail Sabri to not challenge each other that was signed late last year technically makes PH a pro-government party within the parliamentary system of governance. Talk of extending this until July 2023, especially after a budget many believe the opposition should have rejected on principle, has created disappointment and apathy.
Anwar’s insistence on putting himself above the greater cause of the alliance is now leading to accusations that he is either a BN ‘Trojan horse’ and/or letting his ego get in front of real party interests. Within the PKR today, there are those who faithfully believe in Anwar Ibrahim and those who are developing a growing disillusionment. PKR has already ripped itself apart with the exit of the Azmin Ali group in 2020. The question here is whether it could survive another exodus.
The DAP has to be disappointed and consider what the party must do to return to electoral relevancy. Anthony Loke has gone on record saying that the DAP will work with anyone to form a stable government. Pragmatism will be needed to rebuild a real opposition with DAP as the backbone and mentor. The DAP’s loss of Yong Peng to the MCA should reinforce the reality of the damage done from the MOU.
The DAP could nurture alliances with MUDA, Warisan, and elements of any other parties that may break away. Such an alliance, or even new party, would require a policy-based platform rather than the ad hoc approach that PH has pursued to date. Any MOU with the government is negative to the electorate.
Then there is UMNO itself, facing the rivalry between Najib’s forces and those of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who appears to have lost considerable momentum in this race. If he falls from power, there must be a new coalition to talk to. If PKR splits, there must be a new coalition those who leave can talk to. These are the options that may prevent Malaysia from going back to the future. A radical realignment of parties and splinters of parties could create a new entity to challenge the old.
As the Zahid-Najib forces prepare to take over UMNO and control of government, it will bring a reaction. While waiting for the unforeseeable, the DAP must align the possible today. It’s time for the opposition to change trajectory or become irrelevant electorally. Opposition groups cannot wait for Anwar to lead PKR into the darkness once again. There must be a viable lifeboat for splinter groups to jump onto to create that incentive for them to jump. Creative thinkers are desperately needed.
Murray Hunter is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel. His blog can be found here.