Will the Muhyiddin factor tip the scales away from Umno in Johor?

(Malaysia Now) – The Johor state election to be held next month will demonstrate whether the popularity of former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin is enough to check Umno’s influence in the state, analysts say.

Johor, the birthplace of Umno, was seen as a Barisan Nasional (BN) stronghold until the coalition’s shock defeat to Pakatan Harapan (PH) at the 2018 general election.

At the time, Muhyiddin’s Bersatu led then by Dr Mahathir Mohamad was part of the PH pact. Mahathir left the party in 2020 after resigning as prime minister, triggering the collapse of the PH government.

Political analyst Mazlan Ali said Muhyiddin, who hails from Johor and was menteri besar there from 1986 to 1995, still holds strong sway in areas such as Muar, Batu Pahat and Segamat.

“Even without Mahathir, he is capable of maintaining his influence among the Malays in Johor,” Mazlan, of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, told MalaysiaNow.

Citing the split in Bersatu and the formation of Pejuang, which will contest an election for the first time in Johor, he said the same logic used during the previous election in Melaka no longer applied.

He said Muhyiddin’s policies while he was prime minister during the fight against Covid-19 had made him more popular than other leaders.

“Voters have no issue with Muhyiddin,” he said. “He solved many problems during his time as prime minister, especially in terms of welfare.”

He said Muhyiddin also symbolised unity among the Muslims as he had worked with PAS in PN.

“Umno on the other hand didn’t look like it wanted to be part of this unity,” he added.

Mazlan also said Muhyiddin could be expected to win support for PN in the Felda areas in Johor.

The state constituencies in Johor which are home to Felda settlements include Bukit Permai, Bukit Batu, Pasir Raja, Pantai, Endau, Tenggaroh, Kahang, Paloh, Sedili, Tanjung Surat, Penawar, Johor Lama, Puteri Wangsa, Layang Layang, Bukit Kepong, Pemanis, Kemelah, Buluh Kasap, Tenang and Gambir.

Mazlan said PKR president Anwar Ibrahim, on the other hand, still could not win over the Malay electorate.

In Johor’s east, in areas such as Mersing, he said, Umno continued to hold strong influence whereas voters in the urban areas leaned towards the opposition.

The election in Johor is expected to be more lively than the recent polls in Melaka, due in part to the entrance of Muda which like Pejuang is contesting an election for the first time, and Warisan which is spreading its wings from Sabah to the peninsula.

Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid of Universiti Sains Malaysia however warned PN against depending too much on Muhyiddin, saying the Pagoh MP is linked more to the PN brand than he is to the administration of Johor.

“I think PN’s strategy will backfire on it in Johor,” he said. “Those who previously supported PN through BN went back to supporting BN after the split between Umno and Bersatu became clear.

“Bersatu doesn’t have strong grassroots support, unlike Umno or PAS.”

Muhyiddin has said that he will not defend his Gambir state seat at the upcoming election, citing his desire to give way to other leaders in Johor.

Mazlan said voters in Johor would take into account both coalitions and candidates at the polls on March 12.

“Smaller parties won’t stand a chance as the election will be focused on the three major pacts – BN, PN and PH,” he said.

In terms of candidates, Mazlan said voters would likely support young people who can get the job done.

“They won’t want candidates who appear unfit or in bad health,” he said.

The Johor election was triggered by the dissolution of the state legislative assembly last month.

The state government said an election was necessary as the death of Kempas assemblyman Osman Sapian had left it with too narrow a majority of only one seat.