A roadmap for political stability after confidence vote

The Malaysian political system clearly cannot continue as is.

COMMENT | As Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s parliamentary strength has dropped to 100 seats and likely further to two digits, the confidence vote may have to come sooner than the September deadline he promised. Any scheme to avoid the confidence vote will only invite an outburst of public and royal wrath.

It is important for Malaysians to plan ahead for what might happen after the confidence vote.

Step 1: Cross-party commitment now to post-vote political stability

In some parliamentary countries, the incumbent head of government cannot be voted out on a no-confidence vote alone without an alternative majority government in store. This constitutional mechanism is called “Constructive Vote of No Confidence” (COVC).

In other words, a negative majority against the incumbent is not enough but a positive for his/her successor is necessary. COVC was invented by post-War Germany, determined to avoid the repetition of disastrous political instability in the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic, where 14 chancellors took oath in 15 years.

We do not have COVC in our Constitution but all parties – both the anti-Muhyiddin forces in Umno and Pakatan Harapan and the remnant Perikatan Nasional government partners – must give an explicit commitment that they would be prepared to make a cross-party compromise in government coalition regardless of the outcome.

Such explicit commitment to post-vote compromise is advantageous for both sides and should become a consensus by Malaysians, regardless of political preferences.

For Umno and Harapan, this can rally public opinion to demand an early confidence vote, which was eloquently explained by Dewan Rakyat deputy speaker Azalina Othman Said, must happen before the royal address so that the king does not have to deliver a new royal address if the PM was voted out.

For Muhyiddin, his own commitment in exchange of theirs can force Umno and Harapan to end all attempts to oust him if he survives, or his coalition remains the largest bloc after his defeat. Surely, some of his old-school advisers will tell him this is a wrong signal of surrender. The reality is, if he can sustain his number, even not restoring the majority, a cross-party commitment to post-vote stability serves him well.

What we do not need from the parties at this stage is unnecessary constraints on who can lead or join the next government, except those who have been convicted or prosecuted in court for graft. This includes Muhyiddin if he is defeated but continues to lead the largest bloc in Parliament.

Any party can name their favourite leader as PM candidate, but this must not become an obstacle to government formation. If any party insists on not accepting a PM candidate, they must commit their cooperation as a constructive opposition should such a person be made PM.

Step 2: Cross-party pact for political stability, whoever the PM

Whoever becomes the new PM, or if Muhyiddin miraculously survives, the government must enter a pact for political stability with most if not all opposition parties.

While no means a sufficient condition to overnight stop the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths, political stability is a necessary condition for a better response to the raging pandemic and the ailing economy.

As political stability may mean different things to different peoples, I would list three necessary qualities of the political stability we need.

First, it must allow the government to make medium- and long-term decisions, because electorally popular short-term measures like premature relaxation may make us pay with more lives and longer lockdowns.

Second, it must enable the government to make difficult decisions instead of dragging its feet at critical junctures. In crises like this, often no policies might be popular.

Third, it must enable the government to enforce laws, policy and discipline, eliminating the “dua-darjat” (double-standard) phenomenon, resisting private lobbying, and removing any unfitting minister or officer when necessary.

Post-confidence vote, the government must have a working majority. The “working majority” is the majority that enables the government to survive motions of (no)-confidence, votes on royal speech and budget, or submissions of statutory declarations (SDs) at the palace.

A government with a working majority may be an all-party or grand coalition government, a majority-coalition government, or a minority-coalition government with “Confidence and Supply Agreement” (CSA) support from enough opposition MPs.

What matters is not the size of the majority, but its reliability and duration. We must always remember Harapan nominally had 139 seats – stronger than any formation that politicians are talking about now – on Feb 23, 2020 and it still collapsed the next day.

To further learn from Harapan’s collapse, the survival of the post-vote government must not hinge on the personality of the PM – dangerous both when they may leave early or when they never want to leave.

The duration of the next government must hinge on convergence of parties’ best interests. It is as naïve to tell politicians to not compete for power as to tell businesses to not compete for profits.

It should be clear by now, three years after GE14 and 17 months after the Sheraton Move, that the government cannot survive or perform with nasty or bitter opposition. No stability pact can last without adequate support by opposition MPs and, as Umno has taught us well, government backbenchers.

Therefore, the following measures should be considered in any realistic stability pact, and should be advocated by any MP who wants to be PM. They require leading politicians, not to sacrifice their partisan and personal interest, but to pursue them rationally by securing national and public interest.

First, policymaking must be widened from the narrow circle of ministers and senior civil servants to include opposition MPs, government backbenchers (collectively known as “Private MPs”) and state governments. Private MPs and state governments must be recognised as real players, and not pushovers to just accept cabinet decisions.

This requires an empowered Dewan Rakyat with parliamentary special select committees (PSSCs) overseeing every ministry and involving every interested private MP, and perhaps a Federal-State Covid-19 Council with weekly intergovernmental coordination.

Assisting the federal government, parliamentary committees and the Federal-State Council can and must draw in technocratic support from outside the government. Fundamentally different from any National Operations Council-style oligarchy, decisions in this Parliament-centred and decentralised system will be made by elected representatives, requiring no emergency and the ultimate backing of guns for public compliance.

Second, abuse of power and corruption must be politically checked through a Parliament that meets more frequently and parliamentary committees that can conduct inquiries all year round. The stinging privileges enjoyed and flaunted by political and business elites (derogatorily called “golongan kayangan”) when ordinary people are crying and dying has produced deep resentment that, if unchecked, may eventually set our parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy on fire.

Third, all MPs must be given equal and adequate funding for constituency works and research assistance. There should be a cap on the number of ministers and deputy ministers and a prohibition of private MPs sitting on government-linked companies (GLCs) and statutory bodies. These prohibitions should eventually enter the Federal Constitution.

The greater incumbent advantages enjoyed by government MPs over opposition MPs and by ministers over government backbenchers, the stronger the need for the losers to plot against the winners to avoid defeat in elections.

Fourth, selective prosecution must end. The post-vote government must immediately commence steps to separate public prosecution from the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), to subject MACC to Parliament’s control and to introduce an independent oversight mechanism on the Inland Revenue Board (IRB), whose investigations on tax evasion are often perceived to be politically selective.

Five, the registration and regulation of political parties must be transferred from the Registrar of Societies answerable to the home minister with obvious conflict of interests, to the Election Commission (EC), which must in turn be made answerable to a PSSC on elections instead of the Prime Minister’s Department.

Step 3: delayed, prefixed and fair elections

The last step is to let the government to continue for the remaining term, until July 16, 2023, or at least 12-18 months.

The talk about having an election once herd immunity is reached is irresponsible if not misinformed. If nothing else, we must have learned by now that Covid-19 hits in waves and countries that do well in one wave may be brought down in another. Why should we put the country at risk when the current Parliament’s term has not ended?

With the deepening divide and more multi-cornered contests expected in GE15, the next Parliament is likely more fragmented. An early election is worse if we cannot handle a hung Parliament and unnecessary if we can, as discussed in Step 2.

Instead of distracting ministers with an uncertain election date, GE15 should be planned ahead with a fixed date in 2023 and a level playing field – full implementation of Undi18 and automatic voter registration (AVR), extensive facilities of absentee voting and broadcast campaigning.

Instead of feeling despair, ranting cynically, or rallying for one leader over another, Malaysians must demand all parties to reveal their governance plan after the confidence vote.

By : WONG CHIN HUAT (An Essex-trained political scientist working on political institutions and group conflicts) – MALAYSIAKINI

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Stringer.

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