Heading off a potential political impasse

BUDGET 2021 hangs in the balance because politics in Malaysia is fluid and uncertain right now. For the first time in the country’s history, there is no certainty that the budget will be passed.

There are several schools of thought on how to handle the potential impasse.

One is to install a new prime minister. But the problem with this is that no PM-wannabe has a convincing enough majority to do so.

The other is bubar (dissolution) to hit the reset button and, hopefully, the rakyat will vote for a coalition and give it a strong mandate. This is the preference of Umno, specifically the kluster mahkamah (court cases cluster) which wants a snap poll once Covid-19 is under better control.

A Confidence and Supply Agreement (CSA) is another option.

On Tuesday morning, I had breakfast with political scientist Prof Wong Chin Huat, who is a passionate advocate of the CSA.

Prof Wong – a political scientist at the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development at Sunway University – explained that a CSA is an agreement between the prime minister’s party and opposition parties (or individual opposition MPs) that the opposition will either vote in favour of or abstain from voting on motions of confidence and the budget (or supply Bills) in exchange for consultation, policy concessions or reforms by the PM.

The CSA, he said, is common in countries with minority governments, like Denmark and New Zealand (after 1996). “Even a majority government sometimes seeks a CSA with the opposition to have a stronger position, ” he said, pointing out that Malaysia’s second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein’s deal with Gerakan and the PPP (People’s Progressive Party) after the 1969 elections (when the PPA almost took Perak) can be seen as a CSA even though no written agreement was made public.

Prof Wong argued that the CSA would benefit ordinary Malaysians in two profound ways.

First, he said it would reduce inter-party enmity and, by extension, intercommunal antagonism at the societal level.

“A CSA can pave the way for parties to seek peaceful co-existence and open up the possibility of different combinations for a post-election coalition.

“Realistically speaking, a post-coalition government formed by parties with distinctive electoral bases – like Umno/Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and DAP – is more stable because they wouldn’t fight over constituencies, ” he said.

Second, he said a CSA would make parties more policy-orientated because the key points to justify such an agreement is what policy consensus the parties can arrive at. “This reduces crude communal politics and induces parties to compete and collaborate more on policies, ” he said.

The political scientist forecasts that CSAs will become a part of Malaysia’s new normal in politics because hung parliaments will replace single-coalition majority governments and post-election coalition governments will replace permanent coalitions like Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Harapan.

“It will be complementary to coalition deals, as the prime minister would be able to use a CSA to prevent ‘blackmail’ by coalition partners or rebels, ” he said.

However, politicians, especially from Umno, and political analysts seem to believe that a single coalition government with a strong mandate could still rule the country, according to my conversations with them. What the country needs, they said, is a reset button in the form of snap elections.

One party which is pushing for the CSA, though, is DAP.

Prof Wong said DAP is keen for a CSA with Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin because an ideal alternative government is not possible.

He argued that even if DAP could work with Umno to install a new PM, joining a government with Umno leaders such as Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – whether under Muhyiddin or PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as prime minister – is a no-no.

DAP parliamentarians are happy to keep Muhyiddin in power in exchange for policy influence through parliamentary committees and equal constituency funding, he said.

Prof Wong said Umno’s opposition to a CSA makes perfect sense because what the party fears is that it and Perikatan Nasional government backbenchers would no longer be able to influence Muhyiddin as they have since March, he said.

“As long as Muhyiddin survives with only 113 seats, Umno, with its 39 seats, holds the cards on replacing him and killing Bersatu in three-cornered fights in the Malay heartland.”

Bersatu leaders told me that the prime minister is not keen on a CSA. They explained that Muhyiddin does not want to extend his government’s lifespan through an agreement with opposition parties.

“What Tan Sri wants is a fresh mandate from the rakyat. Since he became prime minister, Muhyiddin has been telling us that he is keen on snap polls so that he can get a stronger mandate.

“However, he can’t call for an election yet because of Covid-19 cases spiking, especially after the Sabah polls, ” said a Bersatu insider who did not want to be identified.

The other reason Muhyiddin has not pushed the snap poll button is that his party is not ready for an election.

“We need a few more months to strengthen Bersatu. We also need time to hammer out a seat-sharing deal with Umno and PAS. So GE15 is likely to only happen after January 2021, when the rakyat begins to feel the positive impact of Budget 2021, ” said the Bersatu insider.

Prof Wong said it is natural for Malaysian political parties and politicians to fear CSAs as it is a new concept for them.

“People once feared even trains and planes! CSAs are what Malaysia needs for tomorrow, and I have strong faith that politicians who still live in yesterday will eventually transition to tomorrow. Because if they don’t, they will be abandoned by the voters of tomorrow, ” he said.

Some opposition MPs have told me that they would support Budget 2021 via a CSA. But why would they agree to a CSA that might, for instance, include a two-year political ceasefire with Muhyiddin as the PM, I ask.

Because they want to avoid snap polls is the answer. They prefer an election to be held after the implementation of the 18-year-old voting age rule and automatic voter registration by July next year. Some are also worried that outstation voters will not travel to vote if polls are called during the currently heightened Covid-19 situation.

Some politicians aligned with the Perikatan government, however, are not interested in a CSA at all. They want polls to be held as soon as possible as they believe a party member could become prime minister.

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