In Johor election, is Malaysia's Umno seeking stability or a get-out-of-jail card for Najib?

Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak.
PHOTO: Reuters

All-too familiar political rumblings are once again being heard in Malaysia , as the country prepares for its fourth statewide election in the Covid-19 era.

The upcoming vote in the country’s second most populous state of Johor comes after Chief Minister Hasni Mohammad over the weekend received royal assent to dissolve the assembly.

Despite having the mandate to govern until June 2023, Hasni called for an early election citing the instability of having just a single-seat majority.

A member of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob ’s United Malays National Organisation (Umno), Hasni said it was crucial for him to have strong support to proceed with development plans. Polling day has yet to be set, but under the law, the election must be held within two months.

Most political analysts, who are largely unconvinced by Hasni’s rationale for triggering the polls, say the move – coming amid rising Covid-19 cases of the Omicron variant in Malaysia – is heavily connected to national-level political manoeuvrings as the country’s long-simmering political battle once again threatens to hit boiling point.

Out of the three other statewide polls held since September 2021, two contests – in Sabah and Melaka – were linked to the fierce battle for national power among Malaysia’s political camps, while the Sarawak election last December was held following the expiry of the state assembly’s mandate.

This time, the polls will have serious implications for the hugely influential Umno, where alliances are split between a camp backing Ismail Sabri and another that is behind the scandal-haunted ex-leader Najib Razak . The result of the vote could also impact whether, and when, the prime minister calls a general election.

Here are the key things to know about the latest twist in Malaysia’s political roller coaster ride.

Why call elections now?

Speculation has been rife that Hasni would trigger snap polls after the death of an assemblyman, Osman Sapian, in late December.

The demise of Osman, a former chief minister, meant the coalition Hasni led had a majority of just one seat in the 56-member state assembly. Hasni’s headaches were compounded by the rivalry within his coalition. His Umno has 14 seats, while the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) – the party of Ismail Sabri’s predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin – has 11 seats.

The fierce rivalry between the two parties, who champion Malay nationalism and admit only Malay-Muslims as full members, led to Muhyiddin’s ousting last August – just 17 months after he gained power following a complex political coup.

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Both parties now support Prime Minister Ismail Sabri’s federal government, but their key members have openly sniped at each other and indicated they will not cooperate at the next polls. Muhyiddin last November warned the Johor administration could collapse “with the push of a button”.

“After Muhyiddin’s threat, and seeing their majority reduced to just one seat, it was time for Umno to dissolve the assembly,” said political observer Awang Azman Awang Pawi of the University of Malaya.

Others, such as Tunku Mohar Tunku Mokhtar of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, said he did not buy Hasni’s pretext for the polls, arguing instead that Umno was seeking to consolidate its resurgent clout following its crushing victory in November’s Melaka election.

That result capped a series of favourable outcomes for Umno, which had floundered following its shock defeat in 2018’s election that ended its uninterrupted 61-year streak as Malaysia’s main ruling party.

Francis Hutchinson, a long-time Malaysia watcher at Singapore’s Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, was also of the view that Umno’s buoyancy following the Melaka vote was the key reason for the upcoming snap poll. “Johor is seen as even friendlier terrain, as Umno was born in Johor Bahru and has an unshakeable grip on the eastern half of the state,” the researcher noted in a commentary on Monday.

The Najib factor?

A common line of thinking among Umno’s opponents in recent days is that the Johor poll squarely has to do with the power struggle within the party.

Liew Chin Tong, a political strategist for the opposition Democratic Action Party, wrote in a commentary that Umno was split between a so-called “troika” comprising Najib, the current president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and his deputy Mohamad Hasan on one side, and another made up of ministers in Ismail Sabri’s cabinet.

The latter group, Liew suggested, was in favour of prolonging the premier’s now five-month tenure in office while Najib’s camp is seeking an early general election.

Going to the polls now rather later – after an internal party election due in November is held – would mean Ahmad Zahid will be able to pick candidates favouring his faction, which in turn would boost their clout in the aftermath of the national poll.

“To put it in the simplest terms, the Johor snap poll is just the first salvo for a snap general election, which will be Najib and Zahid’s ‘get-out-of-jail’ pass,” Liew wrote.

Najib is currently facing multiple criminal cases linking him to the infamous 1MDB financial scandal, and has already been sentenced to 12 years in jail in one of these trials.

He is out on bail pending an appeal to the country’s highest court in that case.

Ahmad Zahid – Najib’s key lieutenant during his 2009-2018 stint as premier – is also facing dozens of criminal charges over unrelated corruption, money laundering and criminal breach of trust cases.

Wither Anwar Ibrahim and the opposition?

As it stands, the Johor vote will see a three-way fight featuring Umno and the Barisan Nasional bloc it leads, Muhyiddin’s PPBM and the opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance led by reformist icon Anwar Ibrahim.

Pakatan Harapan has in recent months been engaged in deep introspection following its pummelling in the Melaka state election.

Within the bloc, some have questioned whether its leader Anwar, 74, should step aside to allow younger blood to take the reins.

Its current fortunes stand in contrast with Umno: victors in the 2018 poll, Pakatan Harapan was shafted out of power following Muhyiddin’s 2020 coup and has fared poorly in all three state elections held in the last two years.

The bloc’s top leaders have said they viewed the snap poll as a “calculated move” to pressure Ismail Sabri to call a general election.

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Doing so, however, would be in breach of an agreement between Pakatan Harapan and the prime minister signed last year.

That accord was struck to restore medium-term stability to the country’s politics in the midst of the pandemic, and stipulated that parliament would not be dissolved before August.

Despite being against the Johor election, Pakatan Harapan will field candidates in the polls and has said it hopes all non-government parties including the Pejuang party of elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad and the youth-centric Muda would contest under a unified umbrella.

The coalition had 27 seats in the just-dissolved assembly, and is expected to retain the urban constituencies in and around the state capital Johor Bahru, where it has fared well in recent elections.

Australia-based Malaysian politics watcher James Chin said all eyes will be on the “youth vote”. The Johor election is the first contest following the operationalisation of a recent constitutional amendment that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

Iseas’ Hutchinson suggested the younger voters could prove to be a wild card. “The recent lowering of the voting age means the participation of a large cohort of young first-time voters, many of whom have had their education and career prospects severely affected by the pandemic,” he wrote in the fulcrum.sg portal. “Which way they will swing is difficult to determine.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.