MUAR, JOHOR - Former premier Muhyiddin Yassin believes the ground is shifting in Johor, the traditional stronghold of Umno, a rival to his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), with up to 40 per cent of voters in the state still undecided as the campaign for the closely watched state election enters its final days.
Saturday's (March 12) vote will be crucial not just as a barometer of Malaysia's political landscape and the timing of a general election (GE15) due in mid-2023, but Tan Sri Muhyiddin's bid to return to top office.
The Bersatu president is not just Johor-born and bred, he served as the state's chief minister for nearly 10 years, Member of Parliament and legislative assemblyman albeit when he was with Umno.
Now, he leads the Perikatan Nasional (PN) - comprising mainly of Bersatu and the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) - and the pact together with the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition form the current government in Putrajaya. But the two are battling each other for the same seats in Johor.
Umno dissolved the Johor state legislature in January, a move insiders told The Straits Times was not just aimed at triggering an early general election if Umno did well, as some party heavyweights want, but also an attempt to inflict a heavy defeat on Mr Muhyiddin in his home state.
Bersatu was part of Pakatan Harapan (PH) when it won the 2018 General Election, handing BN its first defeat both in Johor and nationally after six decades of uninterrupted rule.
The southernmost state is also Umno's birthplace, raising the stakes in what could be the last poll in the country before GE15.
But Mr Muhyiddin remains confident there will not be a repeat of the Melaka poll in November, which saw BN sweep three-quarters of the seats in the state assembly. He believes that three-way contests played a part in the result, noting that BN secured just 38 per cent of the vote compared to PH's 36 per cent.
In Malaysia’s first past-the-post system, a small gap in percentage points can mean victory or defeat, or even a landslide.
"The fact that they won (in Melaka) is the arithmetic of politics. The percentage of Umno's vote is still similar, not even (a) 5 per cent increase," said Mr Muhyiddin in an interview on Wednesday (March 9).
He believes the result in Johor will be unlike that in Melaka.
Pointing to viral videos of Johor Umno figures pledging to support him, he claimed that "there is already a decline in support for BN".
"We have the data. People are shifting," he said.
Mr Muhyiddin acknowledged that a hung assembly is a possibility given the "mixed reception" PN has received although he pointed out that this "has never happened before as there is a trend to move to one side" eventually.
"There are a lot of people still on the fence. Normally in the last three days, the numbers are smaller but now there is 30 per cent to 40 per cent," he said.
Although the 74-year-old refused to be drawn on his ambitions to be prime minister again which he made clear after resigning last August, he told The Straits Times that the Johor ballot "has a lot of bearing, personally".
"I know where I stand in terms of popularity. My credentials mean a lot, not just for me personally but for many people who see a person they can trust," he said, citing his track record.
Mr Muhyiddin is leading the charge for Bersatu in Johor for the second time, as part of PN this time round. Two other PN components - PAS and Gerakan - which are also contesting in Johor, are banking heavily on the pact's Muar-born chairman's popularity.
Posters and billboards of the former prime minister far outnumber those of PN candidates for the 56 seats up for grabs with the slogan "Abah prihatin" which means caring father, projecting the image he cultivated during his 17 months as prime minister, which saw the government roll out numerous rescue packages to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite that, though, PN could garner only less than a quarter of the vote at the Melaka poll, eventually winning just two out of 28 seats up for grabs.
Many observers, as well as those opposed to Umno's return to the dominance it once enjoyed, believe Johor is a different ball game.
The proportion of Bumiputera (a term combining the Malay majority with the country's indigenous population) voters - generally a BN vote bank - in Johor is about 60 per cent compared to 70 per cent in Melaka and many are first-time voters, thanks to the introduction of automatic voter registration and the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18.
This has enlarged the electorate by nearly 30 per cent to 2.6 million.
Opposition parties have also focused resources towards the southern state in the past decade given its importance nationally - making up 12 per cent of Parliament's 222 members - which helped reduce BN's seat tally from 55 in 2004 to just 19 at the 2018 General Election.
Mr Muhyiddin said: "Remember that Umno was badly defeated in Johor in GE14 and that defeat was partly due to the Bersatu factor."