Back to the Future after Johor Polls
Unless it makes significant changes in leadership across all of its parties and reengages voters with messages that meaningfully impact their lives, it will lose support again —badly. So far, it has chosen to repeatedly ignore electoral defeats (in Sabah, Melaka and Sarawak) and taken voter support for granted.
Dr Bridget Welsh, Between the Lines
The headline from the Johor polls is ‘Barisan Nasional (BN) is Back!’ Capturing 43% of the vote in Johor, Umno-BN won 40 out of 56 or 71% of the seats. The lion’s share of these seats were won by Umno, but partners MCA and MIC each won 4 seats, securing the two-thirds majority for the coalition.
Despite the distraction of former prime minister Najib Razak in the campaign, credit for the victory in Johor should be given to the down-to-earth incumbent Menteri Besar Hasni Mohammad, who led the coalition to victory by rallying traditional supporters with a focus on Johor, the economy and stability. Historically, the BN’s core legitimacy has come from a focus on the economy, and this messaging was especially salient after the damage caused by the pandemic.
The Johor results speak to a return to the past, where Malaysia’s future will take on a different trajectory than what was hoped for when voters rallied for reform in 2018. Yet they also speak to ongoing changes since then, as a new future is emerging for Malaysia.
New Disruptive Forces
The political opposition to Umno-BN has changed.
Perikatan Nasional (PN), the coalition led by the former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, held its own. It won 24% of the total vote share, 3 seats, and came second (ahead of Harapan parties) in 25 seats.
PN also won over large shares of younger Malays, especially in the northern part of Johor where Muhyiddin is from. The coalition even secured a victory for PAS in the tightly contested seat of Maharani, the first for the Islamist party through a competitive fight.
Still, for PN, the immediate questions are who will take over its leadership, and whether the coalition can stay together with pressures growing to call national elections.
The second force is Muda, which in its maiden election won 1 seat but also managed to hold onto its deposits in all 7 seats it contested. With a total vote share of 3.5%, Muda outperformed all the other opposition parties in gaining support.
Notably, Muda made impressive inroads into rural as well as semi-rural seats, with an inter-generational appeal. It now faces a difficult choice on how to position itself vis-à-vis other opposition parties and build up its machinery, which remains limited.
Despite Umno-BN’s decisive win, Johor continued a post-GE14 trend of younger voters opting for new alternatives. The election was one in which the transformative power of younger voters has increased, and will continue to do so as more of these voters are engaged. Voter education and outreach to this demographic remain necessary for their greater inclusion.