In Johor Election’s Wake, Malaysian Politics Stay Turbulent

by | Mar 25, 2022 | Blog, Opinion Pieces

Photo: ARIF KARTONO:AFP:Getty Images (CSIS)


In Malaysia, politics never sleep, and the first quarter of 2022 has revealed new plots and plans. The recent state election in Johor has given the upper hand to the former ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), led by the Malay nationalist party UMNO. BN had a monopoly on power for over 61 years before being defeated in May 2018 by the opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH). The Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, which currently leads the government together with tenuous support from UMNO, has lost most of the seats owned by its leading party Bersatu. Ironically, PN and UMNO are allied in the government at the national level, but they are opponents on the state level. Further, UMNO president Zahid Hamidi warned that BN will not be collaborating with PN at the next general election, which is due to take place by 2023. Emboldened by its big wins in Johor and other state elections, UMNO has urged Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob—himself a leader of UMNO—to call an early general election sometime this year.

While BN has been rebuilding its base after winning several recent state elections, PH, once again an opposition coalition, continues to slide from power since losing control to PN in 2020. The coalition has been weakened by internal dissensions aggravated by a string of political losses and miscalculations. The Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Justice Party, or PKR) led by Anwar Ibrahim is hemorrhaging and fails to attract new voters and talent. Anwar explains his party’s poor image as having been tarnished by the mistakes of the PH’s 22 months in power from May 2018 to January 2020.

For that reason, Anwar decided his party would contest in Johor using its own logo rather than that of PH. As a result, PKR retained only one-fifth of the seats it had gained in 2018. Meanwhile, its coalition partners, the Democratic Action Party (DAP)—a party with historically strong ties to the Malaysian Chinese population—and the Islamist reformist party, Amanah, chose to collaborate with the new party, MUDA (literally, “young”). DAP retained 10 out of 14 seats, Amanah retained 1 out of 7, while MUDA, which is not part of the coalition but ran under its logo, won its first state assembly seat. MUDA was formed in 2021 and targets the youth vote in a new electoral environment where the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 last December, adding more than 7 million voters aged below 25 to the 15 million previously registered.

This election was also the test for two other new parties: Pejuang, formed by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in 2020, and Warisan, a Sabah-based party that expanded to peninsular Malaysia in December 2021. Warisan, formed in 2016, is led by former UMNO leader and ex-chief minister of Sabah State Shafie Apdal. While Pejuang and Warisan did not win any seats in Johor, both parties are searching for a new formula. The leaders of the three newcomer parties—MUDA, Pejuang, and Warisan—are indeed moving toward the creation of an alternative to PH. This could take many forms: their integration into the coalition, or the creation of a new one.

So far, Anwar Ibrahim has not been receptive to the idea of extending his coalition to these new outsiders. But more than a damaged reputation, Anwar’s PKR is suffering from political sclerosis, and the only cure would be a radical change in strategy, rhetoric, and leadership. As an exclusively Malay front, the incumbent PN fails to attract non-Malay votes, which means it will not be able to win enough seats to form a majority government on its own in the upcoming general election. To counter BN’s influence, PN should ally with PH. Meanwhile, on the PH side, the loss of Malay votes by both Keadilan and DAP is blatant; DAP’s outwardly pro-Chinese rhetoric and open criticism of pro-Malay policies has deterred nearly all Malay voters from supporting DAP candidates, as has the weakness of PH’s leadership. If PH and PN fail to collaborate, they risk exacerbating ethnic tensions and far-right populism.


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