Uncommon Sense: Changing the Government

Changing the government
17 Sep 08 : 9.00AM
By Wong Chin Huat

Changing the government
(©Timur Druzhynin / 123rf)

SO, it did not happen on 16 Sept. But that does not alter the conclusion: regime change is only a question of when and how, and not whether it will happen.

After the ISA arrests of blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, journalist Tan Hoon Cheng and parliamentarian Teresa Kok — the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s biggest political mistake since 8 March — the survival of the present administration of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has become so untenable that increasing numbers in civil society and the media are taking pains to justify the crossovers.

Many of their justifications dismiss objections to the crossovers as merely based on morality and ethics — namely, the question of whether the ends justify the means. The crossover justifications are convincing for many because, if the Pakatan Rakyat is unethical, there is clearly a shorter supply of principles on the BN’s side.

The real question we need to deal with, however, is between intentions and consequences. We are facing a trade-off between democratic transition and democratic consolidation.

Unfortunately, those who have advocated for a quick transition from the authoritarian regime to the democratic opposition rarely discuss how we can make sure that “democracy becomes the only game in town”.

Even the 13 Sept ISA arrests merely suggest that the cost of a later transition may have increased, but without a realistic assessment of the price we may pay in delayed consolidation. We cannot judge if a hasty transition is the best thing to do.

This is a pure cost-benefit analysis, not an abstract philosophical debate on morality.

The perils of crossovers, part one:
Reduced competition

Depending on its type, mass crossovers may reduce competitive politics, regardless of the degree of democratisation. The underlying democratic ideal of multi-party elections is for the better candidates from all parties to defeat their opponents who are deemed less desirable.

In this sense, a crossover that results from the split of a dominant party to form a splinter group — like the formation of the Semangat 46 parliamentary caucus in 1988 — is good.

In contrast, crossovers intended for the main antagonists to be in the same camp actually eliminate choices for the electorate, much like what business mergers do for consumers.

Ironically, even if an en-bloc East Malaysian crossover can democratise Malaysia, it is likely to halt democratisation in these two “one-party” states. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will have to promise the East Malaysian defectors their candidature in the next elections, leaving local leaders from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the DAP with no chance to unseat them.

This explains why PKR is keen to have the defectors join as individuals rather than as representatives of component parties, and the DAP has been seemingly lukewarm to the idea of crossovers.

Changing the government
(© Kae Horng Mau / 123rf)
Some argue that Anwar can be very choosy and picks only the good apples, leaving the rotten ones behind. This is a naïve expectation as he will only make new enemies by excluding the rotten.

More substantially, if Anwar poaches only the good guys, how would we expect an opposition consisting of all corrupt politicians to behave?

In this sense, the “get-only-the-good-ones” argument does not change the dilemma: damned if you don’t, and damned even if you do.

The perils of crossovers, part two:
Destabilising precedence

Crossovers in a context of ongoing democratisation set a negative precedent in government formation. Some argue that there is a need for “extreme measures in extreme times”, but do we want to see parliamentarians frequently changing their party affiliations after the polls?

Changing the government
Reformasi in Indonesia, 1998 (© David Dare Parker, source: worldfoto.org)
The Philippines had its democratic transition 22 years ago, but democracy has not been consolidated since. Every now and then, an elected — and not necessarily democratic — government faces the threat of being brought down by people power and military coups.

In contrast, thanks to the ascendance of four presidents (BJ Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) through constitutional means despite the initial ouster of General Suharto by mass protests 10 years ago, Indonesian democracy is arguably consolidated.

Like it or not, a new government formed through controversial crossovers is vulnerable to the pressures of the unelected institutions: the monarchy, the military, the police and the civil service.

Can a new government that needs to make substantial concessions to “king-makers” or “king-backers” to ensure its survival be truly reformist?

Changing the government
A new government formed through crossovers is vulnerable to the pressures of unelected institutions such as the police
A hasty overthrow of the Abdullah government through statutory declarations of non-confidence might immediately send the country into a constitutional crisis. In 1966, the government of Tunku Abdul Rahman orchestrated a revolt of Sarawak lawmakers against the outspoken Iban chief minister, Datuk Stephen Kalong Ningkan. With a top-secret letter of no-confidence issued by 21 out of 42 legislators, the state governor requested Ningkan to resign.

Ningkan resisted because there was not a vote of no-confidence in the state legislative assembly. He was sacked but eventually reinstated by the Borneo High Court, which saw the necessity of a formal vote of no confidence.

In his judgement, Harley A-G OCJ ruled that the governor can only exercise his power to dismiss the chief minister when both these conditions are satisfied: “(a) the chief minister has lost the confidence of the House, and (b) the chief minister has refused to resign and failed to advise a dissolution”.

As our state political system is very much modelled on the federal one, is the judgement on Ningkan not binding on the federal government?

If Abdullah has lost parliamentary support but rejects statutory declarations just as Ningkan did the top-secret letter, can the Yang di-Pertuan Agong appoint another prime minister? Can we afford to have two PMs?

The simple way out is clearly a fresh election.

The perils of crossovers, part three:
The bitter loser

The third implication of regime change through crossovers is the emergence of a bitter loser. Can Umno stomach the loss of power without being given a chance to put up a fight?

Changing the government
A fresh election will prevent a precedent of governments formed through party-hopping, but there is also the need for electoral reform

For some, it is important to vacate the BN government before holding fresh elections in order to implement political reforms such as the abolition of the ISA, and, most importantly, electoral reform.

Many worry that the Pakatan Rakyat will suffer another near-miss if the electoral process is not overhauled. PKR lawmaker Sivarasa Rasiah has proposed a shelf life of six months for the new government before fresh elections are called.

While the concern about electoral fraud is real, can Umno accept a Pakatan Rakyat caretaker government (which, by definition, should not carry out major policy changes)? After mistreating the opposition for so many years, can Umno trust the Pakatan Rakyat to treat them fairly?

Without Umno’s acceptance, we may not even have a smooth transition, let alone consolidation of democracy.

What’s the way out?

Our position is now difficult due to the following four conditions:

(a) the current government is increasingly untenable;

(b) a parliamentary no-confidence vote may not be possible as the speaker may not allow it, and it can only happen at the earliest in late October if the 2009 budget is defeated;

(c) the Pakatan Rakyat will probably resist fresh polls until the electoral process is reformed; and

(d) Umno is likely to reject a Pakatan Rakyat-led caretaker government.

What shall we do?

The only viable solution seems to be a caretaker government acceptable to both sides of the divide until the next election is called. Its task in political reform is to ensure two things: (a) that the electoral process is free and fair to deliver victory to the deserving winner (this point is essential for the Pakatan Rakyat); and (b) that the loser will not be suppressed, discriminated against or marginalised (this point essential for Umno/BN, which may refuse to admit defeat otherwise).

Changing the government
Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, founder of the Semangat 46 splinter party in 1988, and best choice for caretaker prime minister (Source: Wikipedia.org)
The caretaker prime minister ideally should not be selected from the core leaders of either side. As our constitution requires the prime minister to be a member of the lower house, respectable elders like Tun Musa Hitam are ruled out. The next best choice is perhaps Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.

Is this what Anwar and his colleagues plan to discuss with Abdullah? We don’t know, but we should. A new Malaysia should not be one whose fate is dictated by politicians behind closed doors.

There is more than one way to change the government. The 16 Sept deadline has already passed. It’s time we expand our imagination beyond this date. End of Article


One response to “Uncommon Sense: Changing the Government

  1. Excellent analysis for understanding of the issue by Malaysians.

    Will feature your post in my website and link readers back to your blog.

    All the best



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