Azhar-Azalina friction in focus ahead of Dewan Rakyat’s reconvening

Chairing of 5-day special sitting draws attention, but proceedings may descend into farce amid questions over conflicting agenda

KUALA LUMPUR – All eyes will be on Parliament when it finally reconvenes for a five-day special sitting beginning Monday, with key attention set to be on the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and economy.

Potentially of equal interest is how the proceedings will be moderated, as conflicting signals and views have already emerged from the top two seats of the federal legislature.

The contrast in opinion between Dewan Rakyat Speaker Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun and his deputy, Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said, on the whole gamut of democracy is cause for the usual expectations of how parliamentary proceedings will transpire differently this time around.

Azhar-Azalina friction in focus ahead of Dewan Rakyat’s reconvening
The public debate between the Dewan Rakyat speaker and his deputy on their interpretations of the law over the reconvening of Parliament could give a bad impression of the House, says a political analyst. – File pic

Over the course of the emergency, which was proclaimed in January, Azhar has maintained that the executive body has the power to suspend Parliament and the prime minister has the right to set a date for a sitting.

On the other hand, Azalina, who is Umno’s Pasir Gudang MP, has exhibited in her statements staunch support for parliamentary democracy, urging on multiple occasions for the immediate reconvening of the august House.

Dewan Rakyat Speaker Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun has been accused of favouring the Bersatu-led government due to his cordial relationship with Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. – Bernama pic, July 22, 2021
Dewan Rakyat Speaker Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun has been accused of favouring the Bersatu-led government due to his cordial relationship with Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. – Bernama pic

With the duo’s differing stances over the months, there is an unprecedented expectation that they may conduct proceedings differently while chairing the Dewan Rakyat.

Possibly the biggest poser is whether Azalina will venture to allow questions, debates and potential calls for a vote from the floor – in the spirit of democracy – that Azhar ostensibly will not permit during this special sitting.

There have been accusations and arguments from both sides of personal and political interests at play.

On the one hand, some are claiming that Azalina is taking her party’s slant, and on the other, critics are alleging that Azhar is favouring the Bersatu-led government due to his cordial relationship with Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who heads the ruling party.

Although not openly expressed, speakers appointed in the past have been typically expected to perform their duties with the government’s best interest in mind.

However, with Azalina’s stand, the embattled Muhyiddin has been presented with a fresh headache as he is already facing a serious legitimacy test in the House, following the withdrawal of support from Umno for his leadership.

All eyes are on whether Dewan Rakyat Deputy Speaker Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said will venture to allow questions, debates and potential calls for a vote from the floor. – Bernama pic

Constitutional ambiguity, partisanship reasons for clash in opinion

Speaking to The Vibes, Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun said the conflicting perspectives between Azhar and Azalina stem not only from their partisanship, but also constitutional ambiguity.

He said Azhar, popularly known as Art Harun, appears to be leaning more towards the unwritten Westminster convention that the government is the one that decides the date of a parliamentary sitting and order of business.

Azalina, on the other hand, seems to be interpreting the matter in line with the written federal constitution, which requires the proclamation of emergency and promulgation of ordinances to be ratified by Parliament at the earliest time possible, he added.

This, together with their political partisanship, has led to the unprecedented clash in views between speakers.

Oh Ei Sun does not discount the possibility of Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun being entrusted to chair most of the sitting, compared with the traditional apportioning of the duty among the speaker and his two deputies. – Asean.com pic, July 22, 2021
Oh Ei Sun does not discount the possibility of Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun being entrusted to chair most of the sitting, compared with the traditional apportioning of the duty among the speaker and his two deputies. – Asean.com pic

Oh said the prospect of Azalina conducting the House more accommodatingly and leniently, by way of allowing room for debates and views to be shared by the opposition, may force government intervention.

In particular, he said he does not discount the possibility of Azhar being entrusted to chair most of the sitting, compared with the traditional apportioning of the duty among the speaker and his two deputies.

“Who knows, (Azalina) may even allow a vote or two (to take place during the sitting).

“We do not have such precedent yet, so it is ambiguous whether the one chairing the meeting at a particular time can allow a vote without the government’s permission.

“Imagine if Azalina suddenly allows a vote. It will be havoc for the government as they may not have a parliamentary majority.”

Prof Jeniri Amir does not dismiss the likelihood of chaos erupting in Parliament if one of the speakers takes matters into their own hands. – Bernama pic, July 22, 2021
Prof Jeniri Amir does not dismiss the likelihood of chaos erupting in Parliament if one of the speakers takes matters into their own hands. – Bernama pic

‘Speakers should put rakyat’s interest at forefront’

National Council of Professors senior fellow Prof Jeniri Amir said the clash in opinions indicate the likely presence of political interests, but stopped short of naming any individual.

“What I can say is that by right, speakers should not be defending the interests of specific individuals or parties, but should be upholding the law, constitution and democracy for the interest of the people and nation.”

He said the public debate between Azhar and Azalina on their interpretations of the law over the reconvening of Parliament serves a bad impression on the House and will not augur well for democracy and Parliament.

Like Oh, Jeniri does not dismiss the likelihood of chaos erupting if one of the speakers takes matters into his or her own hands.

“They should have sat down and had a discussion, not issue statements openly outside. It will raise only doubt on what exactly is happening, or if there is a hidden agenda.

“If they continue like this, how are they supposed to control Parliament? They need to make the correct decisions together, based on the public’s best interest.”

By : Amar Shah Mohsen – THE VIBES

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