Dennis Ignatius: Johor and the rejection of Pakatan Harapan

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PH must now take ownership of its own poor leadership, its muddled messaging and its unappealing platform and act quickly and decisively.

As expected, UMNO-BN stomped home to an impressive victory in Johor, taking 40 of 56 state seats. Coming on the heels of earlier victories in Sabah and Melaka, it certainly looks like UMNO-BN is now within striking distance of Putrajaya.

This was an election that took place against the backdrop of several ongoing corruption cases involving senior UMNO leaders – the court cluster, as they have been collectively tagged. There is little doubt that the court cluster is intent on building momentum towards an early general election in the hope that they can quickly return to office and put an end to their legal travails.

None had more reason to campaign harder than former prime minister Najib Tun Razak, now a convicted felon who was found guilty of seven counts of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, and money laundering, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Out on bail (pending appeal to the Federal Court), he was in his element in Johor. Astonishingly, his conviction didn’t seem to matter to the crowds which rushed to greet him wherever he went. Far from diminishing him, his conviction has taken him to new heights of popularity. Indeed, he is arguably the most popular political leader in the country today. Already, there are calls for him to return as prime minister (he’d have to get a royal pardon first).

Like Najib, UMNO president Zahid Hamidi too has plenty of reasons to push for early elections and a quick change of government. Should elections be called after a possible conviction, it would enormously complicate his situation and perhaps invite a challenge to his position. An early election is a do-or-die issue for him.

But how has it come to this that kleptocrats and felons appear to be surging ahead in one electoral contest after another? Do the voters not care about corruption and criminality? Have we as a nation become so inured to corruption and the abuse of power that we are now willing to normalize it and acclaim as heroes the ones who plunder our wealth and pawn our future?

This being Malaysia, there are no easy answers. Certainly, there are those who seem to put a higher premium on race, religion and pedigree over integrity and character. But it is just as true that voters – already weary from years of political instability and economic dislocation resulting from the never-ending pandemic – were hardly excited about the opposition either. Indeed, half the registered voters didn’t even bother to vote.

Looking at the data, it can be argued that Johor voters didn’t swing to UMNO as much as they turned against Pakatan Harapan. While BN only marginally increased its share of the popular vote (from 40.36% in 2018 to 43% last week), Pakatan Harapan saw its support plummet from 56.73% to 20.48%. Even Perikatan Nasional did better (24.04%). As PKR’s Rafizi Ramli wryly noted, PH has become “the least preferred choice” for Malay voters. Even among non-Malay voters, support has slumped to new lows. It is not hard to fathom why.

Pakatan Harapan – once a credible party with a credible agenda – has lost its way. It is deeply divided on issues of leadership, strategy and agenda. It is no secret that both the DAP and Amanah have grown increasingly frustrated with Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership. Indeed, many, even in his own party, feel that it is time for him to step down but no one is willing to bell the cat. Lim Guan Eng’s cryptic remarks recently suggesting that Rafizi should challenge Anwar for the PKR presidency is as close as any PH leader has come to asking him to step down.

The distinct lack of loyalty to the common PH logo has also not gone down well. The DAP ditched the PH logo in the Sarawak state elections last December while Anwar opted to use his party logo in Johor. It is differences such as these that strengthen the impression that PH is in disarray.

As well, PH seems to be out of sync with the voters. In Johor, PH made Najib and stopping the court cluster the main issue; voters were clearly more concerned with jobs, the rising cost of living, financial support and getting the economy back on track again. Najib skilfully spoke to those concerns. His slick and savvy social media machine ran circles around PH. His demand that EPF contributors be allowed a further withdrawal of their savings was so widely popular (if ill-advised) that Anwar himself was forced to play catch-up.

Differences have also arisen on issues like naming a shadow cabinet, economic policy and the response to a number of pressing national issues. Now another argument has broken out on the issue of whether the opposition should quickly form a broad coalition with Perikatan Nasional (PPBM, PAS and Gerakan). Anwar is thought to favour the idea while both DAP and Amanah are adamantly against it. Even Rafizi, who finally felt compelled to come out of retirement, has dismissed the idea as morally repugnant given that PPBM played a central role in bringing down the PH administration via the infamous Sheraton Move.

Unsurprisingly, Anwar’s call for the opposition to regroup following the debacle in Johor has fallen on deaf ears. Regroup around who and what? A leader who has lost the confidence of both his own coalition and the public? A coalition that is now heavily encumbered by past baggage, bad memories and poor performance? An agenda that is so muddled that no one really knows what the coalition stands for anymore? Surely, regrouping around a failed leader who is unwilling to change and a failed strategy cannot be a winning formula. All it will accomplish is give the court cluster an easy ride to Putrajaya.

PH must now take ownership of its own poor leadership, its muddled messaging and its unappealing platform and act quickly and decisively. There’s no point complaining about low voter turnout, restrictions on campaigning or pointing fingers at each other. Only a drastic makeover – new leaders, an electoral pact with Muda and other select independent candidates, a platform that appeals to Malay voters as much as it does to non-Malay voters, one that will energise and inspire all Malaysians – will suffice. It may even be time for a name change to shed all the negativity associated with PH.

Time is running out. GE15 may come sooner than later. The tide is shifting towards UMNO but there is still time if the opposition can get their act together. Can they put aside their egos and their ambitions and build a winning coalition? If they can’t or won’t, history will blame them as much as the court cluster for Malaysia’s descent into the gutter. – Dennis Ignatius