Skip to main content



Umno eyes an early election, but it is not out of the woods yet

If the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) seeks an early general election (GE) in Malaysia, it would be more out of its weaknesses than strengths. 

Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi addressing party members at the party's general assembly on March 18, 2022.

Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi addressing party members at the party's general assembly on March 18, 2022.

Follow us on TikTok and Instagram, and join our Telegram channel for the latest updates.

If the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) seeks an early general election (GE) in Malaysia, it would be more out of its weaknesses than strengths. 

Umno has led its coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) to two landslide state poll victories, in Johor last weekend, and Melaka in November 2021.

BN won 40 seats out of 56 in Johor, and 21 seats out of 28 in Melaka.

This follows Sarawak’s state election last December, where Umno’s long-time partners under the Gabungan Parti Sarawak gained 76 seats out of 82. 

The wind seems to be in Umno’s sails.

Party president Zahid Hamidi and former party president and ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak have been pressing for an early GE, although parliament is due for dissolution only in July 2023.

In fact, Umno is not out of the woods yet after its serious drubbing in the 2018 GE.     


First, it has not recovered the Malay support it had lost after 2013.

Bersatu and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), members of the newest coalition, Perikatan Nasional (PN), have been gaining support among Malay voters that traditionally supported Umno, including rural voters and public servants. 

In Johor, Umno’s vote share for the seats (largely Malay-majority constituencies) it contested in only improved slightly from 43.9 per cent (2018) to 46.7 per cent (2022), far from the 62.3 per cent in the 2013 GE.

While Umno improved its seat count from 17 (2018) to 33 (2022), it could not arrest the decline in support since 2013 in nine seats.

In Melaka, PN’s two-seat score obscures its strength.

In 2018, PAS failed to win any state seat.  In 2021, PAS missed winning the Serkam seat by 79 votes.

PAS fared better than Pakatan Harapan (PH) in all the rural and semi-rural seats it contested, particularly Serkam and Taboh Naning.

This is significant as PAS is known as a regional party with its grassroots bastions concentrated in Kelantan, Kedah and Terengganu. 

Bersatu’s eyebrow-raising victory in Melaka’s Sungai Udang, an Umno stronghold, with a significant proportion of military personnel and their families, reflects its attraction for Malay public servants.

Bersatu’s potential as a game-changer is seen in the Malay-majority seat of Bemban of Melaka, which was traditionally held by the BN’s Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) but was lost to PH’s Democratic Action Party (DAP) in 2018.

Bersatu boldly fielded a Malay candidate and won.  It banked in the Malay votes (traditionally Umno/BN supporters) and capitalised on the splitting of Chinese votes between DAP and MCA.

Bersatu can pick up more seats by strategically deploying Malay candidates in such rural and semi-rural areas.

Umno/BN’s supermajorities in Johor and Melaka, both Umno strongholds, obscure the grounds gained by PN.

Among the 37 seats contested by Umno in Johor, PAS and Bersatu worked together strategically to become the best performing Opposition coalition in 25 seats, although winning just three of those.

PAS gave way to Bersatu in contesting fewer seats this year than in 2018, improving their performance in all but one seat. Bersatu’s and PAS' combined voter share was 60 per cent of Umno's.

If the votes of PN and PH were combined, they would have won 19 more seats together.

If Opposition parties avoid multi-cornered fights in a GE, they could present Umno with a much tougher challenge.

Not all votes are transferable between PN and PH, but it is plausible that some of their anti-Umno/BN supporters would vote strategically in a high-stakes GE.


Secondly, because Umno enjoyed majority Malay support, it sustained political stability for decades.  It has since been a destabilising force after it lost power in 2018.

Umno destroyed the PH government by working with defectors from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Bersatu, and PAS, to form the PN government in 2020.

Umno leaders brought down the PN government in 2021 but were forced to compromise with PN to accept PN’s preferred choice, Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob, as prime minister. 

Because the Umno president is not also the PM, as is customary, power is diffuse and factionalism exacerbated.

Umno leaders unhappy with the PM and the status quo have continued to agitate for a change of government, such as triggering the election in Johor. 

There, they had persuaded voters that if Umno were returned with a larger majority, it would restore the political stability that has been so elusive for Malaysians, that only Umno can provide — the same claim they are making for an early GE. 

Yet, two days after Umno’s triumphant win in Johor, its candidate for Chief Minister, Hasni Mohammad, who had won the mandate from voters, made way for Onn Hafiz Ghazi, the son of Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein’s sister.

Mr Onn Hafiz was reportedly the preferred candidate of the Johor palace. 

If Umno remains vulnerable to volatile intra-party manoeuvres serving personal interests, voters may conclude that it is not the stabilising force that deserves support.

Without majority support among Malays, Umno may increasingly not have the final say on key matters of state, having to contend with the rising influence of political rivals and other power bases such as the Malay rulers, civil servants, and East Malaysian political elites.  


Third, at the heart of Umno’s disunity and uncertainty is a difference of views and interests on the role of Zahid and Najib, and the future of the party.

Both men have been nettled by court cases for graft. But they command the loyalty of many division chiefs that they have patronised over their long careers.

The party continues to find it hard to draw a line under the 1MDB scandal and take a more confident position on corruption — important issues that contributed to Umno’s defeat in 2018.  

Buoyed by enthusiastic or curious public reception during the Johor campaign, Najib had suggested that the people missed him as the prime minister. 

Umno members appreciate Najib’s star quality and ability to pull in crowds, but they do not appear unanimous in wanting him to make a political comeback as party president and prime minister.

He may be popular in Umno, but analysts question if he could win majority support from ordinary voters, including Malays.       

At issue now is when the GE should be called. 

Zahid and Najib likely wish to maximise their power over the party and the next government by exercising control over the election campaign and candidates.

If the GE is not held soon and before the party election due by this December, the Zahid-Najib group may not retain the presidency and may need to compromise and support a new president such as Umno Deputy President Mat Hasan, current PM Ismail Sabri, Mr Hishammuddin, or Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin. 

Mr Ismail and his colleagues in government apparently prefer a later GE, but even if they agree to call for early dissolution of parliament, the assent of the King would be necessary and should not be taken for granted.

These issues are coming to a head at the ongoing Umno General Assembly.


Fourth, Umno has played a shrewd political game to regain power but this has also distracted it from a serious reckoning on why the party lost in 2018 and the necessary moves to attract support among current and new voters.

Political machinations have disrupted national governance, leading to public dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of Covid-19, economic recovery, and disastrous flooding.

Umno vice-president Mahdzir Khalid has called for more focus on these issues of concern for voters while Umno Youth has urged reforms on corruption and other issues resonant with the youth at this week’s party general assembly, but these are unlikely to be taken seriously for now.

For the next GE, the electorate will see an influx of 5.8 million new voters, a 40 per cent increase from 2018’s voter population.

Voting trends suggest that voters are open to supporting new coalitions like PN and alternative parties such as MUDA led by younger political aspirants.

It may well be sufficient for Umno to promise stability and a return to “the good old days” to scrape through the next GE, especially if turnout remains low as in Melaka and Johor.

If Umno/BN does not win outright, it would have to work out tactical agreements with one or two other parties.

Low turnout may reflect voter apathy and broad discontent, which may quickly be galvanised by the Opposition.

Given Malaysia’s personality-based politics, Umno needs to present a stronger united front and a clear candidate for PM to rally the public. 

Bersatu president Muhyiddin Yassin has resonated with some Malay voters by distinguishing Bersatu as the true defender of the Malay values of integrity and strong leadership, and claiming that convicted Umno leaders have no sense of shame.

The Chinese may have sat out the recent state elections out of pique at PH, but are unlikely to back BN.

Some would sooner vote for Mr Muhyiddin and PN, than BN, due to their deep-seated antipathy towards Umno.

Given that much of the Opposition is in disunity and disarray, and since Umno does not seem prepared to address its weaknesses, it may indeed be opportune for Umno to seek a snap GE.



Ariel Tan is senior fellow and coordinator of Malaysia Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS), S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. Nadiah Isa is a research analyst at the same institute. This piece first appeared as a IDSS Paper.

Related topics

Malaysia UMNO Barisan Nasional Najib Razak Malaysia politics

Read more of the latest in




Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.