Why Johor remains a key battleground for GE15

(Published in Malaymail)

As anticipation builds over the 15th general election (GE15), Johor DAP chairman Liew Chin Tong has predicted that the state will be a key battleground once more.

He said there were several reasons why, with the most crucial one being Barisan Nasional’s (BN) inability to regain support in the state since its downfall in the 2018 general election (GE14).

“It is quite interesting in Johor. If you look at the results during the state election, if you combine the votes of the two seats in Mersing, actually BN lost Mersing.

“So it is very interesting that this round, Umno was also threatened in the pure Malay constituent areas,” he told Malay Mail in an interview recently.

Looking at the results of the Johor state election, Liew said BN only won 40 per cent of the vote, and although they won with a two-thirds majority, in many areas, the support was weak and Umno’s Malay votes were not high.

“So no one is certain which way it will go, as we heard that some big Umno names are worried about urban seats and these were seats which they used to win.

“Now, for example, look at what Jazlan said — he thinks that he cannot win back Pulai — and Khaled Nordin, who is also thinking of not defending Pasir Gudang,” said Liew, referring to former Pulai MP Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed and former Johor mentri besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin respectively.

Liew, however, pointed out that whatever happens in Johor will have national consequences and the state election showed that Umno has not recouped its losses or rebuilt itself.

“But, at the same time, the Opposition has collapsed to a certain extent. The opponents of BN are not able to work together, and also the enthusiasm of many voters for Pakatan Harapan (PH) has somehow dissipated.

“That is the scenario we are facing now: Umno is weak, and the Opposition is not getting its act together,” he added.

According to Liew, the second reason why the focus will fall on Johor in GE15 is because it has 26 parliamentary seats out of 165 seats in the peninsula.

“It is the state with the second-largest number of MP seats, the first being Sarawak at 31 and Sabah at 25.

“It may not have a population as large as Selangor or Kuala Lumpur, but due to redelineation, it has the largest number of MP seats.

Whoever forms the government will have to win semi-urban seats. It is places like Muar, Pagoh, and even to a certain extent, Sri Gading, all these Malay-majority semi-urban seats, which have sizeable non-Malay seats, these are actually heavily contested, and these were seats that swung in the last election,” he said.

Hopeful for Pakatan Harapan

Although acknowledging that the Opposition bloc is still working towards determining a new narrative, Liew said he is hopeful that PH will come out strong in time for GE15.

Beyond that, he said there are some factors that the Opposition coalition are uncertain of; for example, whether Umno will split further, and if so, what the consequences will be.

“This is something we won’t know. Can PKR reenergise its leadership so that it can be a very potent force given that it has a sizeable number of seats in Johor and around the country?

“And of course, whether we can find a new narrative. That is the larger question for our supporters.

“We used to be able to just be their champion by championing whatever causes. But now, they want us to be able to offer good governance and a long-term governing plan,” he said.

Liew recalled how DAP has had a good run for the last 15 years, from the May 2006 Sarawak state election, through three general elections, to the Sarawak state election of 2021.

“It has been a good 15-year run, and in those 15 years, I think our supporters did not expect too much from us. They only expected us to fight for them and champion their causes, whatever the causes were.

“So in many ways, we were very bold, courageous and daring, and that was our strength,” he said.

Liew said the Johor state election in March was an interesting gauge, as it offered a few observations, one of which was voter turnout.

“Basically, there were people who either could not make it due to Covid restrictions or decided that they were not interested.

“But the result was clear. Umno/BN was only able to win 40 per cent of votes and that is their base.

“The rest is really a test of whether we can reenergise more people, give them a sense of purpose or reason to come out, but we know that there are enough people unhappy with BN and we now need to build a coherent kind of coalition of voters to accept that we want to build a future,” he said.

In terms of Felda settlers in Johor, Liew said the swing was not much in GE14, but it was those based outstation and considered the next generation of Felda settlers who returned home to cast their vote.

That was the difference that contributed to the collapse of Umno support.

“It was an energised national sentiment, where many people who usually aren’t bothered about politics suddenly got energised.

“PH won in many Felda areas because the settlers’ children were coming back from everywhere.

“Umno didn’t lose its original support, but it was the youngsters who came back and voted against BN in 2018,” he said.

“In GE14, BN only won eight parliamentary seats out of the 26 it contested and 19 out of 56 seats contested in Johor, which is known as Umno’s birthplace and stronghold.”

No more ‘fixed deposit’

While some observers have said that BN could secure 70 seats in the peninsula in GE15, Liew begged to differ.

“You talk to many people in Umno. They feel BN can win around 70 seats. I understand where the numbers are coming from, as I do not dispute that BN is in a better position than 2018.

“Therefore, if they think they have 70, it’s realistic. But there are people who hope that BN can win 90 and beyond. I don’t see where this is coming from, and I don’t see where those seats are coming from.

“As for PH, worst-case scenario, we will probably still win 55 — PH won 80 seats in the 2008 general election, 80 in 2013, of course, both inclusive of PAS seats and in 2018, 98 in peninsula — so there are 55 seats which Pakatan won in 2008, 2013 and 2018,” he said, noting that for three consecutive general elections PH won 55 seats without fail.

He added there were 10 additional seats that PH won in 2013 and 2018, so altogether the coalition had secured 65 seats.

“I take a lower number, so in the worst-case scenario, PH will still hold on to 55 seats.

“So 70 plus 55, that’s 125, maybe you give PAS 15 seats, that’s 140 and the remaining 25 are where it will be really contested,” he said.

He added that in the 2013 general election, BN only won 85 seats in the peninsula, but on election night, they were assured of Putrajaya because Sabah and Sarawak were part of the package, as a “fixed deposit”.

“Today, if BN only manages to win less than 70, I doubt Sabah and Sarawak would want to form a government with BN, unless it wins an overwhelming majority.

“So what I’m trying to say is BN is only a peninsula party now. They have no more control or hold over Sabah and Sarawak. When BN has no more command over Sabah and Sarawak, they remain just a peninsula party, and if they fail to win more than 80 or 90 seats, they may be an Opposition party of 70 seats.

“BN is aware of that. As much as they don’t want to say it, they are very clear: If they win only 65 seats, everyone will try to bypass them to form a government against them,” Liew said.

In GE14, BN secured 10 parliamentary seats out of the 25 seats it contested in Sabah and 29 state seats out of the 60 seats it contested. As for Sarawak, the coalition won 19 parliamentary seats out of the 31 it contested.

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