May 4, 2018
GE-14: Battle Royale in Johor and the Future of UMNO leadership
Will Najib be the last man standing? Irrespective of the final seat count, the Johor campaign to date shows that Najib’s standing is considerably lower than it was before the campaign began. –Dr. Bridget Welsh
COMMENT | All eyes are on the majestic state of Johor, which has been declared a “frontline” state for Pakatan Harapan to win in the 14th General election (GE-14).
Polls are pointing to swings, NGOs are joining the fray with racialised warnings and on the ground the political combat is fierce, with even the Election Commission taking sides in their childish (vote-losing for BN) cutouts of Harapan chairperson Dr Mahathir Mohamad from billboards.
Of the 26 seats, 19 or 73 percent are competitive and can be won by either side, depending on the movement in the last few days of the campaign. The state government is also in the balance, although numbers generally favour BN among state seats.
The Johor battleground is special, not just because of the contest and the number of seats, but because of its decisive role in deciding the leadership of UMNO – even after the election.
The War Inside
Since mid-2015 and the revelation of the 1MDB scandal, there has been a war ongoing inside the party, with the state’s leaders and the rank-and-file taking sides.
Johor UMNO led the charge against Najib Abdul Razak, not only with the resignation of former Deputy Prime minister (now Bersatu leader) Muhyiddin Yassin (photo) but also with many of its members opening calling for Najib to resign as prime minister.
As the scandal evolved between 2015 and 2016, many of the senior Johor UMNO leaders who had been recognised for standing up to power and better governance, notably former Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairperson Nur Jazlan Mohamed and former BN Backbenchers Club president Shahrir Abdul Samad, apparently abandoned these principles to join with Najib. Muhyiddin got sacked and purged, and others who opted for the “safe” Najib route got new positions.
GE-14 tests these decisions on the ground. Pagoh, Pulai, and Johor Bahru (JB) are all competitive seats. While they favour BN, they bring to the fore the important role that Johor UMNO has always played in putting the nation on course after a crisis.
Johorean Dr (Tun) Ismail Abdul Rahman arguably was the leader that saved Malaysia after May 1969, keeping democracy (albeit narrowed from earlier years) on course. Now another Johorean, Muhyiddin Yassin, is trying to do the same.
Like Mahathir, Muhyiddin is divisive, with his own legacy issues and a mixed record at the state and national levels, but his decision to stand up on 1MDB is being assessed by the Johor electorate. Muhyiddin is banking on principles winning over patronage, a risky gamble especially within his former party given how UMNO as a party has evolved in recent decades.
This battle inside Johor UMNO goes beyond individuals. Johor UMNO has always brought talent and vision to the national stage. In doing so, they served to make UMNO as a party stronger and increased the capacity of the party to lead the nation.
Now Najib appears to be making the party into his own vehicle to perpetuate his own power. UMNO members in Johor are grappling with whether they are willing to let this happen and the price they are willing to pay to let this happen. For many party members, this election is about whether they are willing to let the party be hijacked for the purposes of one man (and his wife).
Hishamuddin Hussein ( photo), Najib’s heir apparent
Hishamuddin Hussein ( photo), Najib’s heir apparent and a Johorean, has been extremely quiet this campaign, as the battle is playing out. His potential leadership of the party is also at stake.
A State-focused Campaign
It is noticeable that the Johor campaign does not emphasise Najib. His face is not featured along the roadside and in billboards to the extent as his persona is elsewhere.
The BN Johor campaign is about “Team Johor” with Mohamed Khaled Nordin leading the state for the “New Decade”. The theme “We Chose Blue” illustrates the attempt to move away the focus from Najib to the broader support for BN (and especially UMNO).
This messaging is an implicit recognition that Najib is a liability politically. It showcases a desire to protect the system as opposed to individuals in the system, and rests heavily on their record in government at the state level. Five years ago, I noted that Johor was one of the best-run states in the country, and this is still the case.
This said, contention over local issues are more openly discussed than before, and BN Johor is being challenged over governance.
Harapan has accused the state government of cronyism in housing along the Ayer Hitam-Mersing Highway (where construction seems to have slowed after Hishamuddin Hussein’s Sembrong constituency). There are also discussions about investments by China (photo), over-development, the environment, failed projects, corruption allegations and more, all primarily involving land ownership and management.
One important dimension of this contention is the royalty, its role in the economy and political relationships. These issues divide Johorans, despite the deep pride that they collectively have in their state, their culture and its history.
Johor with its 1.82 million voters, or 8.1 percent of the voters in the country, will determine 8.5 percent of the seats in the Parliament. It is, however, a state with important internal differences.
The most important politically is the east-west divide. The east remains the BN stronghold, from Penggerang to Mersing. The five most eastern constituencies, including Sembrong, are disproportionately rural, dominated by Felda estates.
Much of the development in these areas is industrial, with the government playing a large role in promoting these ventures. It will take massive swings in votes to even crack these Umno fortresses, and while there is more access than before – with Harapan flags in the remote village of Kahang in the middle of Sembrong, for example – this level of momentum does not seem to be happening.
The political action is in the west and south. The west is more entrepreneurial, and economically vibrant than the east. Even the rural areas on the west (perhaps with the exception of the large constituency of Pagoh) are now more semi-urban and connected.
Unlike in 2013, the constituencies with Felda areas on the West– Pagoh, Ledang, Segamat, Labis and Sekijang – are now more competitive. This largely has to do with inroads into Felda areas as a result of Bersatu, but local dynamics such as infighting within Umno and BN have also contributed to a softer ground for the governing coalition.
The BN component parties of MCA and Gerakan are also facing fierce contests, and while they hold the advantage, the Malay swing taking place in Johor is undercutting their fortunes in Ayer Hitam, Tebrau and Simpang Renggam. One of the risks for these component parties is that they rely on Malays to win support in mixed seats, a less safe bet this election.
The competitiveness in the west also stems from opposition weakness, as its machinery in Johor is uneven, and in some places not working at all.
Many of its candidates have been parachuted at the last minute and they have had little time to win over the sophisticated Johor voters. This is the case in Batu Pahat and JB, for example. Infighting and displacement of local candidates also has left disgruntlement, as in Skudai.
Splitting will make a difference as well. PAS, while weak in Johor, is aiming to play the spoiler in the close contests.
The Southern Flank
The biggest influence in Johor is Singapore. Its presence will be most felt in the southern constituencies of Gelang Patah, JB, Tebrau, Pulai and Pasir Gudang.
There are an estimated 400,000 Malaysians in Singapore whose decision to come home to vote will be critical for who wins Johor and, frankly, other seats across Malaysia given the potential closeness of some races. It is assumed that most of these returnees will be more Harapan-friendly, as they opted to leave Malaysia for work.
The other factor from the south is the narratives about the election within Singapore itself. Up until Mahathir entered the political fray, Singapore had been allowing (and even encouraging) a vibrant discussion of some of Najib’s governance issues, notably 1MDB.
While those charged and fined in Singapore were largely financial interlocutors in the scandal (rather than the “big fish”), there were prosecutions, and attention paid to the problem. This is despite the Najib government having strong positive relations with Singapore, especially in Najib’s early years.
Mahathir becoming the leader of the opposition has brought about more concern with Harapan, as it brings back old anxieties in the Singapore-Malaysia relationship.
Many Singaporeans are not comfortable with their long-time adversary leading the opposition charge. Singapore’s mainstream media coverage of Malaysia’s opposition has had marked anti-Mahathir elements.
This is, of course, on top of the fact that the PAP is most comfortable with a dominant ruling party staying in office, as this is their own preferred path at home. Having Umno in office in Malaysia allows the PAP to be seen more favorably at home.
Last Man standing
There are three scenarios as the campaign reaches its final days. First, Harapan may fall flat, failing to get the swing among Malays and support among Chinese and Indians it needs to win. Keep in mind the margins needed to swing are large.
Second, and the most likely, is a mixed bag – losses and victories in these close contests, shaped by the issues above and local candidate perceptions. Johoreans are quite discerning in their expectations. Harapan in this scenario will make gains, but unevenly. Seats to especially look out for are Muar, Pasir Gudang, Pulai, Labis and Batu Pahat.
Finally, is the underdog victory for Harapan, where there is a combination of returning voters and momentum on the Malay ground away from Najib (as opposed to Umno).
Despite efforts to move away from Najib with a state-focused campaign, the person at the centre of the Johor battle remains Najib himself – with implications for the leadership of UMNO, for Johor and for Malaysia.
Will Najib be the last man standing? Irrespective of the final seat count, the Johor campaign to date shows that Najib’s standing is considerably lower than it was before the campaign began.
BRIDGET WELSH is an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a Senior Associate Research Fellow at National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with co-author Greg Lopez) is entitled Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore. She is following the Malaysian GE14 2018 campaign on the ground and providing her analyses exclusively to Malaysiakini readers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.