Analysts: Upcoming State Poll in Malaysia May Pave Way for National Elections

Muzliza Mustafa, Noah Lee and Nisha David
2022.01.24
Kuala Lumpur
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Analysts: Upcoming State Poll in Malaysia May Pave Way for National Elections
[Photo courtesy of Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar via Facebook]

Malaysia’s ruling UMNO party may call early national polls if it extends a winning streak by clinching state legislature polls expected in Johor within the next two months, analysts say.

The United Malays National Organization already holds an edge in Johor, the party’s birthplace, and a third consecutive victory in state-level polls since November – after victories in Melaka and Sarawak – could embolden UMNO to move up a general election now scheduled for mid-2023, says one observer.

“A Johor win will definitely give further confidence for UMNO to call for an early general election. There’s a momentum that has been built since the Melaka elections,” Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, a political analyst at International Islamic University Malaysia, told BenarNews.

“UMNO probably sees this as the best opportunity for it to return to power” through an election, he said.

UMNO and the Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance head an unelected government. They suffered a shock defeat in the last general election, in 2018. But last August, they cobbled together a coalition to recapture power at the national level, 17 months after the government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad fell.

Over the weekend, Johor’s ruler – a royal position – signed off on the state chief minister’s decision to dissolve the legislative assembly.

UMNO, which headed the state government, wanted to hold elections to make the government more stable, former chief minister Hasni Mohammad claimed to the media last week. With the death of a supporting lawmaker, UMNO was left with a majority of only one in the 56-seat assembly.

Since the emphatic win for the party in Melaka in November, a section of UMNO has been clamoring to move up the national election. Calls only grew louder after UMNO easily retained power in the Sarawak state election a month later.

But not everyone is happy about the Johor election being called a year before the state government’s term ends. The main opposition Pakatan Harapan bloc said UMNO was being irresponsible by calling for the Johor election at this time.

“We are of the view that the dissolution of the Johor Legislative State Assembly was an act that was planned with the aim of pushing the prime minister to dissolve the parliament and pave the way for the 15th general election as soon as possible,” the Pakatan Harapan Presidential Council said in a statement Monday.

The people of Johor, it said, are still suffering economically because of the COVID-19 pandemic and also because of the recent floods.

‘Opposition has got weaker’

As for the prospects in the Johor election, analyst Tunku Mohar fancies UMNO’s chances.

“If Melaka is an indication, UMNO-BN may win the state elections with a clear mandate. It has the grassroots to mobilize to vote,” Tunku Mohar said.

“UMNO [also] has an advantage over the rest as Johor was its stronghold. …The opposition has a disadvantage because under current [COVID-19] conditions, it can’t hold political rallies – its major strength – to reach the fence-sitters,” he said.

Another political analyst, Sivamurugan Pandian, concurred.

“The opposition has got weaker, which can be clearly seen in the Melaka and the Sarawak state elections [results],” Sivamurugan told BenarNews.

“The Johor state election was not a must, but more of political strategy by the United Malays National Organization. For political parties, timing is important,” he said.

Another analyst, Awang Azman Awang Pawi, said UMNO is trying to restore its political standing, and “it can be expected that it is hard for opponents to beat UMNO especially in their strongholds.”

The under 21s

But one factor that could spoil UMNO’s hopes is the 18-21-year-old section of the electorate that has just been enfranchised. This is the first time that voters in that age range will get to exercise their right to vote, after the implementation of an amendment to lower the voting age.

UMNO deputy president Mohamad Hasan said the Johor polls would see an additional 700,000 voters, many of whom are aged 18-21.

“Definitely we have to prepare with a new focus. … It will not be a walk in the park for UMNO,” he told reporters on Monday, acknowledging that political parties now have to woo even younger voters.

The state election will show whether the new voters will make a difference, said Oh Ei Sun, an analyst at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIAA).

“It will be good test case to see what effect the youth voters will have in the election, as we simply do not have any precedent as to the voting predilection of these new electoral cohorts,” he told BenarNews.

Meanwhile, analyst Tunku Mohar believes UMNO may call elections earlier than July 31 this year, even though Prime Minister Ismail Sabri has signed a pact with the opposition Pakatan bloc to not call national elections before then.

That might not be enough to prevent UMNO from going ahead, the analyst said.

Many in UMNO are desperate to win a general election and wipe out the memory of the party’s defeat to the Pakatan Harapan coalition in 2018. They’re banking on the fact that a lot has happened since then that increases their chances of winning, such as the need for a stable central government amid an ongoing pandemic, analysts say.

On the UMNO side, the party is divided. One faction supports PM Ismail Sabri and another backs party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. The Zahid faction wants polls as soon as possible, SIAA’s Oh Ei Sun and Tunku Mohar said.  

“It surely looks that the non-Ismail faction currently has the upper hand. … The party president does not give [Ismail Sabri] the space to stamp his authority and that makes him a lame duck PM,” analyst Tunku Mohar said.

“If UMNO wins big in Johor, it will put even more pressure on [the party] to have the elections earlier.”

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