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Pandemic politics: Malaysia and Italy have more in common than you think

The PMs of both nations must put powerplays aside and focus on record-level inequalities and their rakyats’ struggle. Will they?


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Malaysia and Italy might be far away from each other, but the Covid-19 crisis has brought to the surface more commonalities than differences.

For a start, the two countries have followed a similar timeline. Malaysia announced its movement control order just one week after Italy’s national lockdown last March, with a second wave hitting in September.

Let’s compare the Malaysian situation with that of Italy, which made international headlines as the first Western country hit by the pandemic. Such a comparison reminds us how issues like rising poverty levels are taking place on a global scale in liberal-capitalist societies.

Let’s hope that, in discussing this and other issues, it will bring the two rakyat closer together as we identify common challenges. These include the struggle against power-hungry politicians and rising economic inequality.

Power politics in the age of coronavirus

While Covid-19 was engulfing the world in early 2020, Malaysia went through the “pintu belakang” (backdoor) political crisis which suddenly left it under a new Perikatan Nasional government.

In Italy, political instability is an everyday reality, with the average Italian government lasting just over a year before a ruling coalition collapses.

Despite the two countries’ tumultuous politics, Covid brought about the same rally-round-the-flag effect that was seen around the world. Between March and April, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte saw his support soaring to 60%, far surpassing his right-wing rival, Matteo Salvini. Salvini’s coalition, despite having won the most votes and seats in the 2018 general election, fell into temporary irrelevance.

It is perhaps more surprising, though, that the same happened with Malaysia’s ruling PN coalition, despite its controversial rise to power. A Merdeka Centre survey completed last August revealed that 69% of respondents were satisfied with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s leadership, and 91% with how the government managed the pandemic.

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Conte’s opportunity to propose himself as a pragmatic leader for a struggling country might explain the rise in popular support.

In Malaysia, the pandemic might account only partially for Muhyiddin’s support level. The Merdeka Centre survey also revealed that 60% of Malay voters supported the alliance between Bersatu and Muafakat, the Umno-Pas pact, pointing to a certain enthusiasm over a unified Malay coalition. It would be worth investigating whether the anti-migrant hysteria that raged through the country last year and the harsh measures taken against them had a rally-round-the-flag effect.

It is too early to tell how events such as the second wave in Malaysia and the declaration of an emergency would affect public satisfaction.

In Italy, the deadlier second wave eroded support for Conte, who has just resigned as citizens grew upset by how rules constantly change in each region depending on the ups and downs of infections.

Occasionally, the pandemic revealed the everyday pettiness of politicians.

In Italy, the opposition has practised obstructionism multiple times, especially when the Conte government amended the “Salvini decrees” on migration that were passed in 2018.

In Malaysia, politicking took on more anti-democratic connotations. For example, the PN government excluded Pakatan Harapan-ruled states from the National Action Council meetings. In PH-ruled Selangor, the state government withheld Covid-aid allocations from several opposition state assembly members, channelling them instead to PH assembly members who would be responsible for those opposition areas.

But more serious than politicking are the power games going on throughout the later waves of the pandemic.  

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Muhyiddin, faced with eroding support in Parliament, sought a declaration of emergency.

The following day, again with coincidental timing, Italy’s second Conte-led cabinet collapsed as the Italia Viva party withdrew its support for the ruling coalition. This small party is led by former PM Matteo Renzi, who is struggling to remain relevant. Renzi triggered a government crisis, citing disagreement with how the EU Recovery Fund will be spent.

A confidence vote in Parliament saved Conte, who also won a Senate vote. But this lack of a majority constrains the government, so the possibility of a snap election is being discussed.

Two struggling rakyat

The rise of extreme poverty induced by the pandemic poses a real challenge for societies around the world, all the more in countries with already vulnerable economies such as Italy and Malaysia.

During the first wave, Italian charitable organisation Caritas helped over 450,000 people, a stark increase from 2019; 45% of those approaching Caritas were requesting aid for the first time. The most vulnerable include irregular, unreported workers (a widespread practice in unemployment-ridden Italy), besides the jobless, those from small businesses and migrants.

Although a layoff scheme was purpose-made for Covid-related unemployment (including minimal short-term aid for informal workers), this represents but a temporary, superficial solution to a structural problem in Italy.

In Malaysia, which faces a similar situation, the economic packages unveiled might cushion the effects of the crisis but, as in Italy, workers in the informal sectors remain excluded.

A possible recently discussed step in the right direction for Italy would have been progressive wealth taxes on large assets holdings to tackle the crisis. Although tiny (between 0.2% and 2%), the proposed tax met resistance from Italy’s predominantly liberal-capitalist establishment.

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In Malaysia, an important move to fight rising poverty was the raising of the poverty line to better reflect current living costs. This will allow the government to readjust development, aid and redistribution programmes.

Eventually, as the pandemic persists, both Italian and Malaysian leaders must put powerplays aside and tackle record-level inequalities and their rakyats’ struggle. Will they?

Daniele Speziale studied at Penanti Secondary School in Bukit Mertajam as a 17-year-old exchange student and later as a political science research intern at USM – and he has been passionate about Malaysia ever since. Now a political science graduate from Leiden University in the Netherlands, he lives in Italy

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