From Ong Kian Ming
Barisan Nasional (BN) won 40 (71%) of the 56 state seats to win the Johor elections, capturing more than two-thirds of the total seats.
While I was mistaken in my earlier statement issued on March 10 stating that there was no clear frontrunner, I was right that there were many seats that were too close to call.
BN’s dominant performance in terms of the number of seats it won hides the reality that it won 43.2% of total votes (compared to 37.9% in the 14th general election, or GE14), which means that the combined opposition vote was more than 55% of the total votes.
In fact, the combined vote of Pakatan Harapan (PH) (including Muda) and Perikatan Nasional (PN) of 750,000 outnumbered BN’s total of 600,000 by 150,000.
Unfortunately, unlike GE14, where the inclusion of PAS in a multi-cornered fight probably helped PH win a few marginal seats in Johor, the presence of a much stronger Bersatu, together with PAS, in Muhyiddin Yassin’s home state helped draw a significant proportion of Malay votes away from PH but not enough to allow PN to win more seats despite it picking up 24.2% of the popular vote.
In the end, it was BN that benefited this time from the multi-cornered fights.
To put this into proper perspective, of the 40 seats that were won by BN, 20 or half were won with less than 50% of the popular vote.
What do the latest election results in Johor mean for the opposition, especially PH, which is still the largest and most influential opposition coalition?
My proposal is for PH to adopt a flexible approach moving ahead in the following three areas – flexibility in our negotiation strategies with other opposition parties and coalitions at the state and federal levels, flexibility in our campaign strategies and flexibility in our timeline for GE15.
Flexibility in our negotiation strategies with other opposition parties
In light of the vote-splitting among the various opposition parties and coalitions which allowed BN to win a disproportionate percentage of seats in Melaka and Johor, there is obviously a need for the opposition parties to sit down and discuss various pacts and formulations for GE15.
There is little point in “killing each other” on the electoral battlefield to prove which is the strongest opposition party, only to end up making BN stronger than it actually is.
But getting the opposition parties to sit down to talk to one another is not so straightforward because of the mutual distrust and dislike which currently exists, whether it is from a party to party (PAS vs DAP, Bersatu versus PKR) or person to person (Dr Mahathir Mohamad versus Anwar Ibrahim, Azmin Ali’s faction in Bersatu versus the PKR leadership, Shafie Apdal versus Anwar, Abdul Hadi Awang versus Lim Guan Eng, just to name a few standpoints).
This is why a flexible approach has to be adopted by PH, as the largest opposition block.
Discussions may take place on an informal basis for some form of electoral pact, perhaps starting at the state level, to avoid three-cornered fights in seats with opposition incumbents.
PH may, for example, promise not to field candidates in the Pagoh and Mersing parliamentary seats (both Bersatu seats) and PN, in return, will agree not to field candidates in Johor Bahru, Pulai and Iskandar Puteri (all PH seats).
After Pejuang’s disastrous showing in Johor, where all of their candidates lost their deposits, it may make sense for this party to focus its efforts in Kedah and some of the other northern/eastern states where it has better grassroots support.
Warisan, too, may want to rethink its strategy of contesting in Peninsular Malaysia and put its focus back on Sabah.
Some multi-cornered fights will probably be inevitable, but the basic idea here is to minimise the number of contests with opposition MPs as incumbents, whether they are from PN or PH.
In a way, PH was already adopting a flexible approach in part of this negotiation strategy.
PH agreed that PKR would use its own logo/flag while DAP and Amanah would campaign using the PH logo.
PH also negotiated to give way to Muda to contest in six state seats.
Unfortunately, negotiations could not prevent Muda and PKR from going against each other in N44 Larkin, which was eventually won by BN with 42% of the popular vote.
Despite Muda’s decision to contest in Larkin, this did not prevent PH from working together and campaigning with Muda in some key seats, including N5 Tenang, N50 Bukit Permai and N41 Puteri Wangsa (which was won by Muda with 45% of the popular vote).
The same flexible approach should be taken in the approach towards GE15 but on a much larger stage, involving much more complicated arrangements at the state and federal levels.
Flexibility in our campaign strategies
PH largely depended on large-scale ceramahs and the anti-1MDB, anti-Najib, anti-GST platforms to win GE14.
We cannot depend on the same strategy if we want to have any chance of pulling off a surprise win in GE15.
We have to be able to employ strategies to win even in relatively low turnout and small ceramah crowd settings.
This means beefing up our ground operations to do outreach to smaller groups of voters, including resident associations, petty traders and hawkers, business chambers and small-medium enterprise associations and sports clubs, just to name a few.
The personal touch of each individual candidate must be felt among different voter groups.
The track record of each candidate, especially incumbents, should be highlighted in an impactful manner, including via social media and personal narratives from people who have been helped by the candidate.
The positive record of the PH state governments in Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan needs to be highlighted to voters in other states.
We need more effective and creative ways of campaigning via social media, including through viral videos of candidates explaining and showing their track record and aspirations to different groups of voters.
Election promises or offerings to voters must be presented in more compelling and concrete ways that go beyond a Powerpoint presentation.
At the same time, the more traditional campaign model of having ceramahs should continue, especially if we anticipate Covid-19 related restrictions to be lifted after April 1, 2022.
Mobilisation for a greater turnout, especially among outstation voters and first-time voters, must be done via different channels, including personal appeals by family members.
Again, PH was already doing some of this in the Johor state elections but as the election results clearly show, more needs to be done.
Flexibility in our timeline for GE15
Finally, PH needs to be flexible in our timeline in anticipation of GE15.
It is likely that with the strong performance in Johor, BN/Umno will be pushing for a dissolution of Parliament and a general election soon after the Hari Raya celebrations in May 2022.
GE15 may come as soon as June 2022. We need to prepare for a June GE15 by starting the negotiations with other opposition parties/coalitions and doing the necessary groundwork now.
But, at the same time, we should also be pursuing other options, including extending the MoU (MoU 2.0) with Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s government to beyond July 2022, as was suggested by Loke Siew Fook recently.
This will give more time for the economy to recover and to fully open up as we begin the transition into the endemic phase of the Covid-19 economy after April 1, 2022.
Being flexible does not mean we don’t have a concrete plan
Some of our supporters may not agree with my proposed approach in that it is lacking a clear direction moving forward.
But the reality of politics post-GE14 and post-Sheraton Move is that each party and coalition must be open to explore different options and configurations.
In a political and economic environment that is as complex as what the country and the world is facing today, we as political leaders must do the hard work of thinking and acting strategically and then explain our actions to our supporters and to the larger public.
We must avoid resorting to knee-jerk reactions and responding to immediate populist sentiment that may go against longer-term interests of the opposition and also the country as a whole.
For example, if PH had signed some sort of MoU with Muhyiddin last year to keep him as prime minister until 2023, Umno may not have instigated the state elections in Melaka and Johor.
We would definitely not have an Umno prime minister who is too weak to stand up to Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, his president, and Najib Razak, his former president.
Being flexible in our approach does not mean we do not have any concrete plans. On the contrary, it means that we have to have multiple concrete plans for different scenarios that may take place.
Many PH leaders have criticised the post-Sheraton Move governments under Muhyiddin and Ismail for repeating the same policies of Covid-19-related lockdowns but expecting different results.
We should take note of our own criticism and realise that if we carry out the same strategies as before, we would be guilty of taking the same path of repeating the same moves and expecting different electoral outcomes.
Ong Kian Ming is Bangi MP and DAP assistant political education director.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.