Malaysia’s ‘Natural Governing Party’ Stages Comeback in State Election

Barisan Nasional triumphs in Johor but under low turnout . . . 

Voters in Johor, a major Malaysian state bordering Singapore, gave the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition an overwhelming majority of 40 out of 56 seats in the state assembly on Sunday. The lead party of BN, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), alone took more than half (33) of the seats. As such, it no longer requires the support of erstwhile ally the Perikatan Nasional coalition – reduced from 12 to three seats – to form the state government as it did in 2020. This marks a triumphant return to dominance for UMNO, Malaysia’s sole ruling party at both the state and federal level from independence until 2018. However, a meagre turnout of 54.9 per cent suggests that voter disenchantment, rather than a substantial increase of support for UMNO and BN, played a decisive role in this election’s outcome.

Eyes on youth . . .

The Johor election was the first in Malaysian where voters aged 18 to 20 were eligible to vote. A 2019 constitutional amendment implemented in December lowered the voting age to 18 and automatically registered 18-year-olds as voters. As a result, the Johor election saw 750,000 brand-new eligible voters, while the next federal election is expected to see more than 5.8 million added to the rolls. An emergent youth-oriented party, the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), earned 3.5 per cent of the vote statewide and won one seat. Though it remains to be seen if MUDA can build on this foothold, its performance demonstrates the potential impact of the youth vote on future Malaysian elections.

Let bygones be bygones?

Sunday was the second electoral landslide for BN after sweeping the Melaka state elections last November. This is a far cry from four years ago when the 1MDB corruption scandal felled former Prime Minister Najib Razak and vaulted the BN from power. Now, Najib is welcomed back on the campaign trail as a prodigal son, his criminal guilt mostly forgotten. Traditional BN supporters have rallied around the old standard, yearning for stability after two years of tumultuous coalition governance. Meanwhile, reform-minded supporters of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) did not turn up in sufficient numbers to prevent the coalition from losing more than half of its seats. PH’s continued rout will provoke urgent debates over its leadership and strategy ahead of the next federal election. Potentially seeking to build off the momentum from two consecutive state victories, the federal BN could drop the writ sooner rather than later.