Analysts: PM under pressure to call general election after Johor polls’ win

Suganya Lingan and Iskandar Zulkarnain
2022.03.14
Kuala Lumpur
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Analysts: PM under pressure to call general election after Johor polls’ win Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (center), president of the United Malays National Organization, and other senior party officials celebrate the Barisan Nasional coalition’s win in the Johor state election, in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, March 12, 2022.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri will come under mounting pressure to hold an early general election after a coalition that his party leads pulled off a big win in the Johor state assembly polls at the weekend, analysts told BenarNews.

The PM appeared to resist such calls early on, saying late on Sunday that moving up nationwide polls was a major decision that the party leadership needed to discuss seriously. Ismail Sabri may be PM but, as vice president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), he is only the party’s third highest official.

“There will be pressure on Ismail Sabri to capitalize on BN’s second huge victory at the polls in just five months,” said James Chin, an analyst with the University of Tasmania, told BenarNews, referring to Barisan Nasional (BN), an UMNO-led coalition that won the election held in Johor on Saturday.

The Johor win can be seen as Barisan’s third consecutive state win, counting the victory of its ally in the December 2021 Sarawak state election, he said.

Barisan won 40 of the 56 legislative assembly seats in Johor, with UMNO securing 33 seats.  Opposition coalitions Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional won 11 and 3 seats, respectively, while opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) won a single seat, and youth party MUDA took only one seat in the first election it was contesting.

While it became clear late on Saturday night that Barisan was cruising to victory, UMNO members chanted “bubar Parlimen” (dissolve Parliament) at the party’s state headquarters. Under the parliamentary system of government, parliament has to be dissolved before national elections are called. In Malaysia, the king has to agree to call a general election.

As it happens, UMNO is scheduled to hold its annual general assembly this week, and political analyst Bridget Welsh expects there to be a heated debate on the issue at the gathering.

“We’re seeing the jockeying already beginning with Ismail Sabri saying it would not be so soon and others pressuring for an early election. The question is, how early?” Welsh, with the University of Nottingham Malaysia, told BenarNews.

Yet, she believes, the Johor win will likely lead to a general election sooner.

“Nationally, Johor’s election will pave the way for an early general election,” Welsh wrote for Between the Lines, a local online journal on politics.

“UMNO and BN are in a triumphant mood. It is now a matter of timing. Open calls for parliament’s dissolution have started with pressure to call elections soon while the opposition remains divided and weak,” she added.

Malaysia’s next general election has to be held by or before July 2023. The current government led by UMNO’s Ismail Sabri has signed a pact with the opposition Pakatan bloc to not call national elections before July 31, in return for its support on key bills such as the budget.

The grassroots is ready for national elections but is leaving the decision to the party’s top leaders, UMNO supreme council member Mohd. Razlan Rafii said.

“We are ready for an election soon,” he told BenarNews.

“It’s usual for elections to be called before full term … We are ready and the support is already on our side as PH has failed to fulfill its promises,” he said, referring to Anwar’s Pakatan coalition.

He added that the party had previously given the party leadership the mandate to decide when to hold the general elections.

“The win in Melaka and Johor would give more confidence to UMNO for the next general election,” he told BenarNews.

MY-BN2.jpeg

A voter holds a flyer that displays the logo of the Barisan Nasional coalition at Sekolah Kebangsaan Sungai Danga in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, March 12, 2022. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Meanwhile, opposition leader Anwar expressed worry about the low voter turnout in Johor, where only a little more than 50 percent of the electorate showed up to vote.

“We are very concerned about the percentage of the voter turnout trend which is very upsetting and can threaten the democratic process,” Anwar wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday.

“This [election result has] also turned out to be an important reminder for political parties to regain their strength in the run-up to the next general election,” he added.

The low voter turnout is also something that UMNO should keep in mind, Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) Associate Professor Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani.

“The dynamics are different when it comes to by-elections and state elections [compared to general elections]. BN should study everything in regards to policies and other factors before making a decision [on calling early elections],” he told BenarNews.

Opposition coalition communications director Fahmi Fadzil said that votes for the opposition were split and that cost it seats in the Johor election.

He believes that former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Bersatu-led Perikatan Nasional coalition – another opposition group – muddied the waters for voters.

“So, how do we handle this issue? Do voters know the difference between the two [Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional]?” Fahmi told BenarNews.

“Is this something that we have to address strategically, or tactically? These are the issues the leaders will be looking into in the weeks and months ahead.”

Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.

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