Crowded field in Johor election as rivals hope to usurp Umno

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JOHOR BARU – An average of more than four candidates are running in each of the 56 seats up for grabs at the March 12 Johor polls.

Nominations closed at 10am on Saturday (Feb 26) with 239 hopefuls, making the southernmost state of Malaysia the most hotly contested vote in recent memory.

According to the Election Commission, there are two wards with seven-way contests, four to be fought out by six candidates, eight will see five contenders and a whopping 35 will see four-cornered battles.

Reflecting a bid to win an influx of young voters, several candidates in their 20s were fielded, including a pair of 26-year-olds representing Barisan Nasional (BN) and Parti Pejuang Tanah Air. About half of the 2.6 million Johor electorate is estimated to be below the age of 40.

The crowded race reflects the fractured nature of Malaysian politics ahead of a crucial general election due in 18 months.

Although the Umno-led BN, which dissolved the legislature in January citing instability from a one-seat majority, are favourites, the diverse and mixed field could spring surprises.

A hung assembly is not being discounted by the major players, including the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Perikatan Nasional (PN), Umno’s awkward partner in the federal government.

Democratic Action Party Johor chief Liew Chin Tong, whose party is part of the PH coalition led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, told The Straits Times that “this scenario points to a huge vacuum in Malaysian politics”.

“Umno is holding on to a hardcore base, but beyond that is a very open field where the space is huge and we need to offer solutions and leadership,” the candidate for Perling said.

The result of the Johor vote could have major ramifications for national politics.

Another landslide victory for Umno after it won three-quarters of the Melaka assembly in November last year would spur the party to push for a general election to be held as soon as possible to capitalise on its momentum.

PN chief Muhyiddin Yassin will also need a credible showing in his home state to ensure he remains a credible candidate to return as prime minister after being ousted by Umno last August.

Meanwhile, Mr Anwar has struggled to unite the opposition with PH. Coming off the back of two disappointing outings, in Melaka and in Sarawak in December, he needs a positive result to avoid further disintegration among allies.

The coalition will clash with other opposition parties, such as former premier Mahathir Mohamad’s Pejuang, former Sabah chief minister Shafie Apdal’s Parti Warisan and former youth and sports minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman’s youth-centric Malaysian United Democratic Alliance.

The “Undi 18” reform, which is being implemented for the first time, lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, and automatically registered all eligible voters – a cohort largely aged 40 and below.

This helped swell Johor’s electoral roll to 2.6 million.

Although Covid-19 restrictions have been loosened for the Johor state polls as compared with Melaka and Sarawak last year, some strict protocols will still be in place. Large scale rallies are banned and supporters were not allowed within 50m of the nomination centres, which will also be used to count ballots on polling day.

At least one reporter ended up with a RM1,000 (S$322) fine for allegedly failing to adhere to social distancing rules, while PH’s Gambir candidate Naim Jusri tested positive for the virus at the nomination centre. His name will still appear on the ballot but he will have to be in quarantine for the first half of the campaign, before the March 12 vote.

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