Special feature: In search of political stability

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WHEN the country went to the polls in the 14th general election in May 2018, the choices were clear. Coalitions were distinct, parties were not “married” to others in different coalitions, and blocs in parliament could be easily distinguished.

Fast forward to October 2022, the lines in parliament had become blurred, with parliamentarians (MPs) switching between coalitions, while the government of the day was at the mercy of the members giving it a majority parliamentary.

The situation prompted the ninth prime minister – Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the third person to hold the post in four years – to seek the consent of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah for the dissolution. of parliament on October 9.

Following the announcement of the dissolution of the 14th parliament by Ismail Sabri on October 10, the Agong said in a press release that he was disappointed with the current political climate in the country, and had therefore accepted the dissolution in the hope that a stable government could be formed.

The question is, will the 15th General Election (GE15) result in a stable government, which Malaysia was known for before GE14? Political analysts The Edge spoke to dismissed the notion of political stability in the country.

“Malaysia’s alleged political stability before 2018 is a myth,” says Professor Wong Chin Huat, deputy director (strategy) of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s Asian headquarters at Sunway University.

“The system cannot handle dominance, which has inevitably led to chronic corruption and cyclical infighting [even within the government coalition].”

Every governing coalition has had a history of infighting that has caused instability in the country’s political scene, he says. For example, the landslide victory of Barisan Nasional (BN) in 1995, which won 87% of the seats in parliament, led to the expulsion of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from Umno and the government.

This was repeated in the landslide of 2004 where BN won 91% of seats in parliament which led to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s attack on then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi , resulting in his resignation.

Umno’s youth leader Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein’s infamous act of raising the keris at the Umno General Assembly in 2005 was seen as the precursor to the eventual political tsunami of 2008, when BN lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time. time in history.

“The Sheraton move was also caused by [Pakatan Harapan’s] attempt to establish BN-style dominance by inciting defections from Umno and BN, which only emboldened Mahathir and [Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia] to confront Anwar and PKR (Keadilan Rakyat Party),” Wong says in reference to the mass defection of MPs that led to the collapse of the 22-month-old PH government.

His view is also shared by Professor Dr Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, Professor of Political Science at Universiti Sains Malaysia School of Distance Learning, who argues that Malaysia’s political stability before GE14 was not only a euphemism used by BN to obtain its two-thirds majority in parliament. .

Fauzi notes that even under the so-called stability regime, the May 13 race riots happened, as did the arrest of “dissidents” by Ops Lalang in 1987. He told The Edge: “It [purported period of political stability] was a time when BN, and especially Umno, controlled everything from mass media and government levers to officials and laws such as the Homeland Security Act.

“A lot of things were controlled by fear. Whenever there were apparent threats or rumors of a threat to so-called stability, the blame was placed on opposition parties or communists. Even under the so-called stability, it wasn’t stable anyway.

Prior to the dissolution of parliament, Ismail Sabri’s administration included the BN, Perikatan Nasional (PN) and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), as well as support from small autonomous parties and independent MPs.

The BN had 43 seats in parliament, while the PN had 46. The GPS – the splinter coalition of the BN comprising parties based in Sarawak – held 19 seats, giving the main members of the governing coalition just 108 seats, four seats from less than a simple majority.

As such, the government of Ismail Sabri was actually supported by autonomous parties such as the Bangsa Malaysia Party. The PBM, which is led by Datuk Zuraida Kamaruddin, the former head of the Keadilan Rakyat Party’s women’s division, had six seats and three independent MPs aligned with it as of October 10.

The government was also able to stay on its feet thanks to its confidence and supply agreement with the PH coalition, in which the latter agreed to support the government, so that some semblance of political stability could be achieved and the government could govern. effectively.

Prior to the dissolution, PH had the largest bloc in parliament with 90 seats.

Can the GE15 lead to a stable government?

It may be too early to suggest that the GE15 will restore political stability to the country as no one can say with any certainty that the people will give a strong mandate to a coalition to form the next government.

“It depends on whether a strong government is formed with the full confidence of the people,” says Dr. Sivamurugan Pandian, professor of political sociology at the School of Social Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

“Even though we are seeing a further realignment [in the event that] no coalition obtains a solid majority, the new coalition must not be based on an average number of 112 to 115 seats. We need to have a more stable number to provide stability and certainty.

For that to happen, says Sivamurugan, voters must vote based on rational and practical factors, rather than emotion. If voter fatigue sets in and many don’t turn out to vote, the country could have the same kind of government, with no clear majority, he points out.

“At the moment, before the start of the campaign… we are unable to read the voters, who have been silent lately. We do not know if they will come to vote for stability or not. In 2018, we saw momentum that had built up since 2015 and the voter turnout percentage was high. Today is totally different from the motivation of 2018,” he adds.

Sunway University’s Wong thinks GE15 will not return a simple majority to a coalition unless one of the national coalitions – BN, PH or PN – can win nearly 100 seats on the peninsula. And that’s almost impossible unless the country has a very low turnout, he says.

“Indeed, the GPS, the GRS (Gabungan Rakyat Sabah) and the Warisan Sabah Party are expected to win at least 45 of the 57 seats in East Malaysia. Although the GPS is close to the BN and the GRS is led by the Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia Party in Sabah, Warisan would negotiate the best deal with the rival national coalitions if there was no clear winner,” says Wong.

Prior to the dissolution of parliament, Warisan held seven seats in the Dewan Rakyat and was aligned with the PH, giving the coalition a total of 97 seats.

Is political stability in Malaysia possible without a clear majority in parliament?

There was political stability before GE14 because a coalition had a clear majority in parliament. Even after the 2008 “political tsunami” which saw the BN lose its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time in history, the coalition still returned to power with 140 seats, a comfortable majority of 29 seats. .

Then, in 2013, in the first general elections called after Datuk Seri Najib Razak became prime minister, the BN still held 133 seats in parliament.

In 2018, when the federal government changed for the first time in history, PH initially won 113 seats, a two-seat majority. With Warisan, the coalition had 121 seats in parliament before Umno’s defections to Bersatu.

However, it is not the number of seats the ruling coalition has that determines stability, political analysts tell The Edge. Fauzi of USM says Malaysia’s democracy is maturing and this will contribute to political stability.

“Although piecemeal, we are moving towards a better state of democracy. For example, we now have the anti-participation law, obtained thanks to the memorandum of understanding between Ismail Sabri and the opposition. This was not achieved under the BN regime when it had a two-thirds majority,” he underlines, adding that the adoption of the anti-partition law shows that political cooperation between coalitions can be carried out despite the absence of a two-thirds majority. in parliament.

Wong of Sunway University says one of the real causes of the instability now is the unchecked power of the Attorney General (AG), who alone can decide whether to file or drop charges. Quoting Andrew Yong, a legal scholar, he says that regardless of the government in power, certain “court groups” that have an interest in pressuring or overthrowing the government will appoint a friendly AG to drop their cases.

“This was openly admitted by Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi at the MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) assembly,” Wong says. “PH made the mistake of not prioritizing the separation of the prosecutor’s role from that of the AG, perhaps hoping to use the means of selective prosecution to compel Umno’s defections. While the next government can compete for past dominance, it will not remove this root cause of instability.

The political analyst adds that, contrary to public perception, a hung parliament should not be an obstacle to political stability, economic resilience or social inclusion. He notes that Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, has had 20 hung parliaments and 21 coalition governments since 1949.

Another example is New Zealand, which had eight suspended parliaments and even a few minority governments between 1996 and 2020, and yet was recognized as one of the best countries in the world to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Even in Malaysia, with the same suspended parliament and an almost identical pool of ministers, the government of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was caught up in partisan fighting throughout its 17 months, while the Ismail Sabri administration was able to govern stably by signing a memorandum of understanding with the opposition, until he succumbed to pressure from Umno to dissolve,” Wong said.

He adds that the real solution to political instability lies in establishing a healthy and productive multi-party system like that of Germany and New Zealand. And that can only happen with a suspended parliament, which forces the parties to cooperate with each other and reduce their antagonism.

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