The present political catharsis may be a necessary process of political cleansing much needed for removing elements of the old politics from the system, Johan Saravanamuttu writes.
Let’s try to understand the current weaknesses and fragility of Malaysia’s coalitional governments and to interpret the probable fate of the present coalition government.
First, let’s briefly examine how coalition governments have fared to date. The tenures of Malaysia’s ruling coalitions are summarised below:
From the above, it can be seen that the two strongest and most stable ruling coalitions in Malaysian politics have been the Alliance (Perikatan) and Barisan Nasional.
The Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition has proved to be the weakest and the least stable while the current Perikatan Nasional appears highly fragile, having been in power only for the past nine months.
Along with ruling coalitions, note the importance too of various multi-ethnic opposition coalitions, particularly Barisan Alternatif (1998-2001) and Pakatan Rakyat (2008-2015), which were the precursors of PH.
The Alliance was brought down after the May 13 racial riots in 1969, after which a new counter-elite in Umno assumed power.
Barisan Nasional was famously defeated by the PH coalition in 2018 but not before its grip on power was badly bruised by the Pakatan Rakyat coalition in 2008, when it lost its two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats.
The PH coalition collapsed because of internal bickering culminating in the Sheraton Move of February 2020.
The current “backdoor” Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition is not strictly an ‘elected’ government and holds the narrowest ever majority , with 113 MPs in the 222-seat Parliament.
My first observation about ruling coalitions is that thus far, they have all been led by Malay parties. I am taking this to be the case as, despite having more MPs, PKR did not lead the PH government. Instead, it was Bersatu that led the coalition until it collapsed.
Another observation is that all Malaysian ruling coalitions have been multi-ethnic in that they have comprised non-Malay parties from the peninsula and East Malaysia.
Malay political fragmentation today, while it has happened in the past, is at its peak (or at its ‘worst’, if you like).
Arguably, Malay parties – Bersatu, Umno and Pas – can be said to be providing the stability of the PN coalition. However, the current coalition is held together by political expediency more so than ever before. Ideology and ideals have been jettisoned.
Moreover, PN is weak on two scores:
- Its non-Malay base or support is thin and it is highly dependent on parties in Sarawak (Gabungan Parti Sarawak) and Sabah (Gabungan Rakyat Sabah) for its survival
- It is weak also because the party with the largest number of seats, Umno, can keep the prime minister and his Bersatu party in check or even hold it hostage (A similar situation occurred with the PH coalition, when PKR, which had the largest number of seats in that coalition, called for a transition in the prime minister’s post, but collapsed because it was not executed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad.)
Most interesting of all is that PN is also the first ruling coalition in Malaysia to have three subsidiary coalitions under it, namely Muafakat Nasional (an Umno-Pas pact), Gabungan Parti Sarawak and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah.
The fragility and sometimes, the agility of PN has been amply demonstrated by state governments changing hands after the Sheraton Move in various power plays: the Kedah government fell to Pas; Johor and Malacca went to Umno; and Perak went to Bersatu.
After the Sabah state election on 26 September 2020, Muhyiddin Yassin was able to prevail and install his Bersatu man Hajiji Mohd Noor as Chief Minister in the face of objections from Umno.
In the latest kerfuffle, Perak Menteri Besar Ahmad Faizal Azumu of Bersatu suffered a devastating 48-10 defeat in a confidence vote on 4 December as a result of an Umno power play.
Interestingly, this is the first instance where PH parties such as the DAP, Amanah and PKR have collaborated with Umno to bring down a Bersatu leader.
In the event, Umno’s Saarani Mohamad was appointed as Menteri Besar after his party, Bersatu and Pas finally came to an agreement.
This move was not entirely unexpected. Umno had been unhappy from the outset about not securing the deputy prime minister’s position at the federal level and losing out on the chief minister’s position in Sabah. Party president Zahid Hamidi covets the deputy PM’s post but he is facing 37 corruption charges – which gives PM Muhyiddin the excuse not to appoint him. Keeping the post free also means Muhyiddin takes full charge and gives the post of de facto second-in-command to Azmin Ali, his co-conspirator of the backdoor PN government.
Fluidity or chaos?
Malaysia is currently in an unenviable situation: the coronavirus pandemic with its damaging economic and social effects is coupled with an unstable ruling coalition.
One need not rehash the major events that have ensued since the Muhyiddin government seized power in March 2020. However, it is extraordinary that his PN government has so far survived a number of crucial hurdles: its Sabah state election victory, the rebuff from the King to its attempt to seek emergency rule purportedly to manage the coronavirus crisis and, most of all, its avoidance of a no-confidence vote and the way it overcame opposition to its Budget 2021.
Despite its fragility, the jury is still out on whether this PN coalition will collapse. There are a number of reasons for this.
First, the Opposition has been weak under the current leadership of Anwar Ibrahim. It has been plagued by continuous inter and intra-party feuding. This brought about the collapse of the PH government in the first place.
Since then, Anwar has consolidated his own strength within PKR with the departure of the Azmin camp and Mahathir faction’s of Bersatu. But in its current denuded state, the Opposition has failed to defeat PN’s Budget 2021. As Leader of the Opposition, Anwar was only able to muster about 95 votes – far below the numbers he claimed to have. Anwar’s loss of credibility, obversely, is the basis of Muhyiddin’s continued longevity as PM.
As there appears to be fluidity within Umno and its elites and with the party apparently lacking a firm central authority, Muhyiddin has been able to maintain his grip on the central government and the ruling coalition.
The Perak government’s menteri besar defeat in a vote of confidence was a power play by Umno, but it will not be enough to disrupt the Bersatu-led PN’s control of the federal government unless a severe economic crisis unfolds. The federal government’s current total debt liability and exposure stands at RM1.3 trillion, which is 87% of gross domestic product (GDP) – an unprecedented economic situation.
Malaysia is going through a period of fractious and liminal politics with multiple possible future scenarios:
- PN continues to rule till the next general election due in 2023 – Likely
- Umno’s demand for a deputy prime minister’s postis accepted – Possible
- Bersatu joins Muafakat Nasional and dissolves PN – Unlikely
- PH wins enough individual politicians and/or new coalition partners to form a new government – Unlikely
- A severe economic downturn or political crisis occurs in 2021 which brings down the PN government – Possible (This scenario is implied by Wong Chin Huat, who has mooted the idea of a PH-Umno coalition, while Pas remains faithful to Bersatu.)
As long as the coalitional politics is fluid and held within democratic and civil bounds, the present political catharsis may prove necessary: it may be a logical process of political cleansing much needed for removing the deadwood and elements of old politics from the system.
If this fails to occur, Malaysia may see more of the same. Certainly, the worst-case scenario will be that no real change occurs and instead, we may see a reconfiguration of the corrupt politics of the past, even with a new political class.Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
9 December 2020