KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 5 ― A clear-cut victory in Umno’s birthplace of Johor will likely boost morale and embolden calls for an early general election, political analysts said.
The faction led by party president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is said to be eyeing an early general election, which rivals claim to be motivated by hopes that returning Barisan Nasional (BN) to power could affect the corruption trials of several party leaders.
So far, all signs have been positive. The Umno-led BN trampled rivals in the Melaka state elections with a supermajority, while its Borneon allies, the Coalition of Sarawak Parties (GPS), decimated Pakatan Harapan to retain power in a state polls held just months prior, bagging more seats than it won in the previous polls.
GPS members were formerly BN component members but left after the coalition lost in the 2018 general election. Still, it has remained friendly with Umno since.
Should Umno succeed in replicating the Melaka election results in Johor, where it secured 21 of the 28 legislative assembly seats, pundits believe Zahid’s faction would likely press Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob to call for elections quickly, as it seeks to capitalise on the momentum.
“The indicator in Johor would be a clear-cut victory like Melaka,” said Kartini Aboo Talib, political analyst with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
“I’m sure the battle will be interesting to see, especially among the Malay political parties (that are facing) division and disintegration,” she added, referring to the rumours about tension between Ismail and Zahid’s camps.
Pundits like Oh Ei Sun, a fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, believed that Ismail, a party vice-president who was seen as open to working with rivals Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, would likely try to delay calling for early elections in a bid to consolidate his position.
“With yet another supermajority win in Johor after Melaka, a momentum within Umno, or at least its mainstream faction headed by Zahid, would be created, such that the prevalent sentiment would be Umno should ride this winning streak into a snap poll,” Oh said.
“But if Ismail were to resist this call, he would be seen as working against the interest of the party.”
The party has dismissed the rumour as an attempt to drive a wedge between Umno’s top leaders.
Its information chief, Shahril Hamdan, who is also economic adviser to the prime minister, said the decision to nominate Ismail as prime minister received the unanimous support of the supreme council, and that Zahid had made several public statements indicating his disinterest in the post.
Analysts polled by Malay Mail have rated the prospect of Umno scoring huge in Johor highly, despite some pointing to the possibility of PAS and Bersatu splitting the Malay votes.
“Umno-BN is going all out to repeat what happens in Melaka to Johor,” according to Kartini.
“PAS has no ground in Johor despite the state being Muslim-Malay majority. The intra-ethnic Malays groups are diverse in Johor… thus the idea of Bangsa Johor is strongly advocated by the Istana and Umno,” she added.
“Meanwhile, Bersatu as a splinter of Umno, might have a difficult time convincing the people they betrayed in 14th GE, So, even if PAS-Bersatu maintains its Perikatan Nasional alliance, it will not do much to sway Bangsa Johor.”
State polls and by-elections, although not necessarily reflecting the national mood, have always provided useful insight for political strategists to gauge and predict voting sentiment.
That means Umno will likely have been buoyed by the spate of by-election victories post 2018 and its resurgence in the Sabah and Melaka polls, according to James Chin, political analyst with the University of Tasmania.
A two-thirds majority in Johor would then be enough to convince the leadership to force an early general election as it seeks to ride on the momentum.
“Momentum is a very important factor in the way elections are called for in Malaysia, you need momentum and that means they would try and go for a two-thirds majority in Johor,” Chin said.
Still, the analyst believes the mainstream Umno faction led by Zahid would still prefer to hold a national polls quick notwithstanding the Johor state election results, given the volatility of the present political alignment at the federal level, in which Umno is forced to govern in the same coalition of rivals Bersatu and PAS.
“It’s very likely to be held regardless of the Johor results. The reason is because the current federal government is not stable, at most they have a majority of three,” Chin said.
“There is no way they can hang on to power until next year, somewhere along the way someone is likely to throw a challenge or a tantrum so in some ways they have to call a general election to solve this issue.”