[These are two excerpts from a September 2020 research article in the current edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]
The counter-coup fiasco and aftermath
Both the Covid-19 outbreak and the lockdown-related ‘Movement Control Orders’ (MCOs) imposed by Muhyiddin [Yassin] have strengthened Muhyiddin’s position in three ways. First, notwithstanding missteps by his ministers in the early stage, Muhyiddin has gained some credit with the MCOs which have successfully flattened the Covid-19 case curve, and with his four economic stimulus packages totalling RM 296 billion (GBP 56 billion). Second, public political protests have been disabled by the coronavirus outbreak and the lockdown. Third, Muhyiddin used the outbreak as an excuse to adjourn Parliament on 18 May after an hour of Royal Address, even though it was technologically feasible to have a virtual or hybrid sitting.
The 18 May sitting was a key turning point for the rump PH [Pakatan Harapan], Mahathir’s faction of Bersatu, Warisan and their allies. Going beyond making accusations that Muhyiddin came into power through the backdoor, they alleged that he had misled the King that he had the numbers when he did not. His claim of majority would therefore be tested when Parliament reconvened. Soon after grasping power, Muhyiddin postponed the opening of the first session in 2020 from 9 March to 18 May. He could not postpone it much longer because the Parliament would stand dissolved if it did not meet within six months after its prorogation on 5 December 2019. Muhyiddin shortened the sitting to one day and only government business was permitted after the Royal Address. However, Mahathir succeeded in getting Speaker Ariff to accept in the agenda his motion of no-confidence against Muhyiddin. To prevent the speaker from fast-tracking the motion, Muhyiddin responded by scheduling the sitting to only one hour of the Royal Address. PH Plus did not do anything – such as holding or joining a shadow virtual sitting to debate the Royal Address to invalidate Muhyiddin’s excuse – and the momentum evaporated. In some sense, Muhyiddin has successfully proven to Malaysians that life can go on for six months without Parliament being in session.
Mahathir faces an uphill task to return to power with a counter coup of his own. First, he must be able to win over a sizeable number of PN parliamentarians in one go for government formation to be a credible possibility. As his half-failure in winning over the Bersatu defectors in early June shows, piecemeal defections can easily be neutralised by Muhyiddin with carrots or sticks. With 18 seats, GPS [Gabungan Parti Sarawak] becomes the most natural target to court, but PH Plus has little to offer more than what PN already has. Second, even if GPS and a few MPs were to join PH Plus to give it somewhere near 130 seats, this majority still could not guarantee that Muhyiddin would not ask for a snap poll or that his request would be denied royal consent. If a snap poll was called, the PH is, with its self-inflicted damage, expected to lose badly to PN, and GPS would gain nothing from switching allegiance and burning its bridges with its PN partners.
More than interpersonal conflicts and ethno-religious tensions (Chin), the democratic backsliding in Malaysia since February 2020 is also a consequence of a dysfunctional parliament and dysfunctional parties. It is now glaringly evident that for five decades, from 1969 to 2018, Malaysia’s democratic institutions have existed only in form, rather than in substance, to serve the cynical purpose of the government appearing acceptable to the population, as the late PM Razak put it so bluntly half a century ago. If political stability was previously achieved in Malaysia by disabling multi-party competition, the system is now being tested after democratic transition and the verdict is negative.
When the parliament is emasculated to function only passively as an electoral college of the Prime Minister, when lawmakers fear to stay in Opposition because of resource deprivation and selective prosecution, when parties are so centralised that factionalism, infighting and splintering become cyclical, what happens in Malaysia now should not surprise anyone greatly. As the ethnic majority Malay-Muslims are increasingly divided with growing affluence and disparity, the fragmentation and realignment of Malay politics is likely to continue, with more flip-flopping clashes and collaborations between both personalities and parties happening more frequently.
Unless multiparty competition can be reconfigured to be more professional, policy-based and stable, and less patronage-driven and short-term-oriented, multiparty democracy will be discredited, as in Germany’s Weimar Republic which had 14 Chancellors in 15 years. For that reason, institutional reforms that can fix politics should be seen as a necessity rather than a luxury. On the positive side, the machinations have opened up debates on an anti-hopping law (Dzulkifly), recall elections (Bhattacharjee & Chee), and even a party-list electoral system (Malaysiakini). If Muhyiddin stays in power, one should not be surprised if in the future Malaysia’s weakest government and strongest Opposition – in terms of seats – negotiate something resembling a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement (Kow).
Chin-Huat Wong is a Professor at Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development, Sunway University, Bandar Sunway, Malaysia.