2018/56, 11 May 2018
Against the prevailing wisdom that Najib Razak’s administration would retain a slim majority in parliament and retain the unbeaten vote bank of Johor, in GE-14 BN obtained only 79 parliamentary seats and was swept from power in its southern bastion.
Johor is a crucial state for Barisan Nasional. It is a large, wealthy, and industrialized state, with well-developed infrastructure and considerable political and economic capital invested in the Iskandar Malaysia special economic zone. Johor also has 26 parliamentary seats, the highest of any state, bar Sarawak. It is also vital for historical reasons, as it is the birthplace of UMNO and the home state of many of MCA’s leaders. Its core of geographically large and sparsely populated Malay-majority seats, particularly along the state’s east coast, as well as its high number of FELDA settlements, have further entrenched Barisan Nasional in the state.
In 2013, Barisan Nasional obtained 21 parliamentary seats and 38 state seats, and then lost a further parliamentary constituency and state seat in 2016 to the new Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, helmed by Mahathir Mohamed.
Yet, GE-14 was to see an inversion of these roles, when Pakatan Harapan swept to power with a substantial majority of 36 seats, yielding only 19 to Barisan Nasional as well as a single seat to PAS. There is a combination of national and local dynamics that explain this dramatic reversal.
First, Barisan Nasional lost its urban and semi-urban seats in and around Johor Bahru. Thus, beyond Lim Kit Siang retaining Iskandar Puteri with a thumping 44,000 seat majority, Pulai, Johor Bahru, Pasir Gudang, and Tebrau all fell to Pakatan Harapan by substantial margins. These large, under-represented, mixed seats were precisely the areas that Mahathir’s coalition sought to target with their focus on governance and cost of living issues.
Second, national-level parliamentarians associated with ‘Brand Najib’ seem to have paid a heavy price. Thus, Nur Jazlan, the Deputy Home Minister, Shahrir Samad, the Chairman of FELDA, S. Subramaniam, the Health Minister, and Razali Ibrahim, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department were all vanquished.
Third, leaders of non-UMNO component party members also paid a high price for their perceived inability to promote their communities’ interests within Barisan Nasional. Beyond S Subramaniam, the President of MIC, Chua Yee Tong, the Vice-President of MCA also lost his seat, and Wee Ka Siong, the Deputy President of MCA, scraped through in Ayer Hitam with a meagre 300 vote majority.
Fourth, the message of cost of living, repeal of GST, and re-instatement of fuel subsidies, coupled with the reassurance that Malay voters’ interests would be represented within the Pakatan Harapan was enough to make serious inroads into rural, Malay-majority constituencies. Hence, Muar, Pagoh, and Tanjong Piai fell, and also substantially reduced Minister of Defence, Hishamuddin Hussein’s majority – which was buoyed by numerous FELDA settlements and a new military installation.
Due to these dynamics, Pakatan Harapan was able to make previously unimaginable inroads into Fortress Johor.
Dr Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Regional Economic and Malaysia Studies Programmes at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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