By H G Rahman

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Talk of a general election within this year has been picking up steam even as clashes occur at the state and federal level between the unlikely coalition that includes Bersatu, PAS and UMNO heat up.

While GE15  is scheduled to be held on or before July 2023, recent developments indicate polls may be held earlier.

The upcoming Johor state election, set for March 12, is seen as the final testing ground for UMNO to gauge its strength against its supposed allies at the federal level as well as against a weakened Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, which is cracking within due to disagreement of who should be leading the Opposition pact.

PH has taken a severe beating from the Sabah elections in 2020, Melaka and Sarawak in 2021 and is not expected to fare well in Johor, but possibly will cling onto some of its traditional strongholds in the state.

Perikatan Nasional (PN) which counts Bersatu and PAS as its main components has already taken a severe beating in Melaka with Bersatu winning only 2 state assembly seats while PAS was wiped out. PAS contested one seat in Sarawak and lost that seat while Bersatu sat out of the Sarawak polls.

While state elections are naturally different from general elections, with parliamentary seats up for grabs, they do provide a valuable indicator of the public sentiments and these sentiments will bear heavily when GE15 rolls around.

Perikatan Nasional

As mentioned PN is comprised of Bersatu, an UMNO splinter party, and PAS, as Islamic party that has strength mainly in the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu.

When former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also Bersatu president, pulled off the Sheraton Move in February 2020, Bersatu seemed to be a solid party that would go on to dominate Malaysian politics, with some leaving UMNO and PKR to join the party.

But over the course of 17 months, Bersatu rapidly lost the plot and was finally forced out, mainly due to its mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis and its inability to “tame” UMNO, which demonstrated that it is still a political force to be reckoned with.

The situation has deteriorated to the point where Muhyiddin will refused to defend his Gambir state seat in Johor, giving the impression that he has already admitted defeat, while key players in the party namely Azmin Ali and Zuraidah Kamaruddin are rumoured to be attempting to seek new political platforms.

PAS for its part saw its fortunes improve with the Sheraton Move, being included for the first time into the federal government since the 1970s but it too has suffered problems with its image. It has failed to please its hardcore support base by not pushing for Shariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 (Act 355) or RUU 355, among other issues which it previously championed.

It has also alienated any possible support from non-Muslims with its toxic rhetoric and is likely to see its power significantly reduced in GE15, possibly even losing its heartland seat of Terengganu while being forced out of Kedah and elsewhere.

Pakatan Harapan

While Pakatan Harapan remains a strong contender for federal power, the once strong coalition is suffering from its own internal problems. Its once strongest party PKR has seen its state and federal seats whittled away through defections and electoral defeats. It is widely perceived as a party with poor structural discipline and its leader, Anwar Ibrahim has been criticised for being unadaptable to changes, unable to strike compromises and is fixated on becoming prime minister.

Not only does Anwar face challenges from within his party, he appears to be on a collision course with his coalition partners, namely DAP and Amanah. This is best illustrated with PKR choosing to use its own logo for the upcoming Johor election while DAP, Amanah and other allies are opting to use the coalition’s logo. While this can be argued in many ways, the simple fact of being unable to close ranks and put up a united front during this critical time will likely hurt their chances in Johor and if left unresolved, this will also undermine their chances in GE15.

DAP for its part has managed to hold together as a party with none of its 42 parliamentarians defecting or jumping ship, even as several state assemblymen have defected. However the party is seen to be “dynastic” and inflexible, something that the party seems to recognise and is working to change. It is likely DAP will hold most of its federal seats in GE15 but it will certainly not keep all 42.

Amanah will always be a junior party seeing as it is made up of those who left PAS and it will not figure as prominently in GE15. It also does not help that the party is seen as being “subservient” to DAP, choosing to back that party over PKR over a number of issues including of course the logo debacle.

MUDA, Pejuang, Warisan

All three of these parties are seen as being aligned in one way or another to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, which may not sit well with voters. Mahathir, while having led PH to victory during GE14, is now seen as having caused political instability in the country after resigning as prime minister during the events of the Sheraton Move without consulting his coalition partners and without passing power over to Anwar.

Having lost Bersatu to Muhyiddin, he founded a new party Pejuang while Syed Saddiq, formerly of Bersatu and a staunch supporter of Mahathir founded MUDA, a supposed youth centric party. Warisan for its part is headed by Shafie Apdal, who continued to back Mahathir after the Sheraton Move and is seen as being closer to Mahathir and a rival to Anwar’s claim to the premiership of the country.

None of these parties has any significant grassroots support. While MUDA and Pejuang are relatively new, Warisan has had time to build a support base in Sabah, it's supposed heartland but it took a beating during the Sabah elections. Despite that it is attempting to branch out into Peninsula Malaysia where it will likely find itself unable to compete against the large number of well established and powerful parties.

All three are seen as merely being “spoilers” drawing votes away from PH which may give parties like UMNO an edge in GE15 and Johor is likely to prove this to be the case.

Barisan Nasional

Malaysia’s grand old party Barisan Nasional can trace its roots right back to the independence movement in the 1950s and indeed ruled virtually unchallenged from independence in 1957 to its shock electoral defeat in GE14 in 2018. The coalition is dominated by UMNO, a powerful and capable party that has shown remarkable resilience and cunning in Malaysia’s political scene. The coalition also includes MCA and MCA, loyalists who stuck with UMNO when BN unravelled following GE14.

Having enlisted the support of PAS to challenge PH in the aftermath of GE14, the party teamed up with Bersatu following the Sheraton Move, seizing federal power and then displacing Muhyiddin. The party has seen a popular resurgence and its allies in Sarawak, under the GPS banner, have proven to be solidly in charge of the state.

Despite numerous scandals, problems and internal feuds, the party has remained as a political force and is most likely going to outperform its rivals in GE15 but by what margin is unknown. Melaka could be taken to be an indicator of what is to come but Johor, where its rivals have a fighting chance will really be the one to watch out for. Should UMNO pull off another big win in Johor, GE15 will be inevitably pushed for within the next few months.