Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s ruling coalition scored a substantial victory in state polls in Johor on Saturday, setting up a likely push for a new general election.
The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition secured 40 out of the 56 seats in the pivotal election, compared to 13 for the main opposition coalition and just three seats for its frenemies in the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition. The lion’s share of BN’s 40 seats were won by Ismail Sabri’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), but its two ethnic Indian and Chinese coalition partners each picked up four seats.
UMNO prevailed despite the influx of some 750,000 new voters due to a recent constitutional amendment that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, which some observers initially suggested might benefit reformist parties. Writing in Between the Lines, an indispensable resource for news and analysis on Malaysian politics. Dr. Bridget Welsh put UMNO/BN’s success down to the efforts of Johor’s incumbent Menteri Besar (chief minister) Hasni Mohammad, who “led the coalition to victory by rallying traditional supporters with a focus on Johor, the economy and stability,” a message that she said was particularly relevant given the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Coming after a similarly decisive return at state elections in Melaka in November, which saw the coalition secure 21 out of the 28 State Assembly seats, the result is likely to prompt more calls from UMNO activists for the government to convene early general elections, which would allow the party to expunge the memory of its ignominious defeat in 2018 and reestablish itself as the predominant governing party.
In general elections that May, UMNO and BN were defeated by a new opposition coalition called Pakatan Harapan (PH), led by former prime minister and UMNO supremo Mahathir Mohamad. But when the PH government collapsed in February 2020, prompting Mahathir’s resignation and ushering in a new prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, it opened to UMNO a path back to the apex of power, granting it a junior position in a fragile new administration, a “coalition of coalitions” that included both PN and BN.
Under Muhyiddin, however, the party chafed at its junior status in his government, and eventually succeeded in elevating its candidate, Ismail Sabri, to the prime ministership after Muhyiddin’s resignation last August. BN still remains nominally the junior partner in the coalition, with 41 of the governing coalition’s 115 seats to the 53 seats held by PN. But given PN’s poor showing in Johor – it won just three seats – it seems likely that a general election will allow the Grand Old Party of Malaysian politics to sweep aside its partner and return to power.
James Chin, a specialist in Malaysian politics at the University of Tasmania, told the Associated Press that Ismail Sabri “will be under tremendous pressure now to call for general elections.” He added, “UMNO wants to build on the momentum generated by its state victories. A big win in the general election will also mean that UMNO can rule on its own without a messy coalition.” The next general election is not required to be held until July 2023.
One party that will be resisting the call for a snap general election is the multi-ethnic PH coalition, which shed 15 seats in the Johor State Assembly, making another step in its long, steady decline since its mold-breaking 2018 election win. Siti Kasim, writing for Malaysiakini, described the election as “a big thud for the forces of reform” in Malaysia.
But Welsh argued that despite BN’s strong showing, the Johor election “was not a complete return to the past,” pointing out that 15 seats were won by close margins. “In spite of the opposition divisions,” she wrote, “the electoral landscape remains both competitive and fluid.”