KUALA LUMPUR (Dec 6): Johor's days of being Barisan Nasional's fixed deposit may be coming to an end if an anti-incumbent sentiment among Chinese voters finds it way south.
Political observers note there has been a noticeable shift in voter sentiment particularly amongst this group and urban voters.
Political analyst Ooi Kee Beng observes that most of the Chinese majority constituencies in Johor did not support the opposition at the last general election but this is expected to change in the coming election.
"Since then, I'm sure they (Johor Chinese) have taken the cue from the rest of Malaysia and are relooking at their options. The habit of voting for the incumbent has eroded," Ooi told fz.com.
Ooi said that the shifting dynamics in Johor's politics is an ongoing affair that extends beyond the next general election.
"The battle won't end there, it will continue," Ooi, the deputy director of the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told fz.com.
Johor has always been viewed as safe ground for BN as it forms a significant power base for Umno and MCA.
Johor is expected to be a keenly contested state in the next general election as the opposition, particularly DAP and PAS, makes its first credible attempt at breaching the Umno and MCA stronghold.
In 2008, BN won 50 out of the 56 state seats in Johor and 25 of the 26 parliamentary seats.
About one-third of Johor's 56 state seats are deemed safe seats for BN with the coalition comfortably winning more than 70% of total votes in 18 state constituencies. All these 18 seats are Malay majority seats with Malay constituents making up more than half the electorate.
A trump card that BN holds in Johor is the presence of 74 Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) settlements situated in 21 state constituencies. Felda voters, particularly the first generation settlers, have steadfastly supported BN.
But to retain power in Johor, BN still needs to ensure ongoing non-Malay support given that more than half of Johor's state seats have sizeable non-Malay components.
Although 40 of Johor's 56 state seats are Malay majority seats, 28 of them have a large presence of Chinese voters who make up between 30% to 40% of the electorate.
The Chinese form the majority in 11 state seats while the remaining five state constituencies have neither a Chinese nor a Malay majority.
Merdeka Center for Opinion Research research manager Tan Seng Keat said Chinese support for BN in Johor has fallen from up to 55% in 2008 to about 30%, in line with trends seen in the urban centres of Klang Valley and Penang.
"Now, Johor support may be on the same level as national trend, about 20% to 30%, but also it depends on the candidate," Tan said.
Assuming the national voting trend among the Chinese is repeated in Johor, BN could very well lose the 11 Chinese majority seats, namely Senai, Skudai, Yong Peng, Jementah, Bukit Batu, Bekok, Bentayan, Penggaram, Mengkibol, Stulang and Pekan Nenas.
Further, five seats are mixed seats where there is no clear majority in terms of race. These seats - Layang Layang, Paloh, Puteri Wangsa, Johor Jaya and Nusajaya -- could fall to the opposition if the Chinese vote against BN and Malay votes are split.
With 28 other seats with a large Chinese presence, any meaningful split in Malay votes could prove costly to BN. In fact on paper, BN could see a tough fight in up to 44 constituencies, or more than three quarters of the state seats.
Although pundits don't expect any major shift in Malay votes in Johor, the potential onslaught by the Pakatan Rakyat is not lost on Mentri Besar Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman, who is also state chairman for the BN in Johor.
Abdul Ghani has vowed that BN will defend all 26 parliamentary seats and 56 state seats up for grabs and ensure that Johor remains the source of strength for BN. But he may find the going a little tougher than in 2008.