Friday, July 30, 2021

Will Muhyiddin survive?

Will Muhyiddin survive?

by Wong Chin Huat

COMMENT | Yesterday afternoon, two speculations were rife. First, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin would resign under pressure from his allies. Second, de facto Law Minister Takiyuddin Hassan and Attorney-General (AG) Idrus Harun, who were named in the royal rebuke, or even the embattled speaker Azhar Azizan Harun, may resign to take the blame.

The speculations were reasonably grounded because the royal rebuke which hit the floor of Parliament yesterday was unprecedentedly direct and stern. With the backing of 114 MPs (excluding Gua Musang MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah) in the best scenario, but more likely less than 110, the government is most fragile.

Surprisingly, in a detailed reply to the royal rebuke, the government underlined the constitutional principle that the constitutional monarch should act according to the advice of the prime minister on most matters including the emergency.

Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob rallied behind him claiming that Perikatan Nasional (PN) still commanded a simple majority with more than 110 votes amongst the Parliament’s current 220 members.

Muhyiddin has responded like former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad except he does not have the same stature and strength which the latter had in 1982 and 1993. But will Muhyiddin survive?

To better answer this question, we should assess the likelihood of these three scenarios: Muhyiddin surviving till the 15th general election (GE15); Muhyiddin being replaced by a member of his cabinet; and Muhyiddin being replaced by an opposition leader.

Brewing two-in-one constitutional crises

Many have characterised the latest development as a brewing constitutional crisis. If true, then this is a two-in-one crisis.

Presented by the government’s statement, one element concerns the king declining to act according to the cabinet’s advice. Since last October, the king and the rulers are effectively the veto holders on the matter of the emergency, unknown in established constitutional monarchies.

Nothing has changed in the rulers’ formal powers. Only their informal powers have expanded as the government’s legitimacy shrinks and the political class fragments. Started in 2008, the trend reached a height during the Sheraton Move.

Supported by the earlier royal rebuke, the other element is concerning the law minister and the cabinet misleading the Parliament with the false claim that the government had revoked the emergency ordinances (EOs) on July 21. Confirmed by the government’s statement itself, the cabinet’s decision did not translate into reality because the palace had denied it the necessary royal consent.

De facto Law Minister Takiyuddin Hassan

The government got itself into this two-in-one constitutional crisis because it wanted, at all cost, to avoid any vote in the five-day parliamentary sitting for fear that any such vote may be construed as a vote of no-confidence against the PM.

While annulment of the EOs can be purely legal especially if it is moved by the minister, the government might have feared that the speaker would have no ground to block a motion to annul the emergency proclamation, also allowed under Article 150(3) of the Federal Constitution.

Annulling the emergency proclamation even when it would end in a week would be highly political and a slap to the government’s face. If the government was defeated in resisting the annulment of the emergency proclamation, which Umno rebel MPs would only be too keen to support, the government would be pressured to table a motion of confidence, which would be similarly defeated.

This explains why the government opted for revocation. We do not know what transpired in the online audience given to the minister and the AG on July 24, but the government might have a better chance of obtaining the royal consent if it had decided earlier or won the public’s support with a pre-announcement.

Inevitable September vote on royal address

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has filed a motion to call for Muhyiddin’s resignation but without enough government MPs breaking rank, Muhyiddin will likely survive at least until mid-September when Parliament votes on the royal address in the next sitting.

The budget and royal address are two important occasions that a government can be ousted even if no motion of no-confidence can be tabled. In other words, no gate-keeping speaker can save the government if it has lost the majority.

Prepared by the government, the royal address represents not the palace’s opinion but the government’s position and governing programmes for the rest of the parliamentary session.

Before yesterday, the government could easily use the pro-royal feeling amongst the Malay masses to smear any attempt to reject the royal address as treasonous and anti-Malay. The stand-off now helps to clear the path for the opposition and Umno.

In fact, the constitutional crisis can deepen if the king disagrees with the royal address prepared by the government or if the royal address delivered turns out to not exactly the same as the text.

Muhyiddin’s replacement more likely from within

Contrary to the wishes of opposition supporters, if Muhyiddin steps down, his successor is likely to come from his cabinet than from the opposition bench.

While Umno is highly factionalised and interpersonal conflicts run deep, all factions would support an Umno PM – Ismail Sabri is the most likely candidate – even if all cabinet positions stay the same.

Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob

Umno is ultimately a patronage machine and not an ideology or policy machine. The party has no fundamental policy differences with Bersatu. This means Muhyiddin stepping down can temporarily reunite the cabinet cluster and the court cluster to provide the new PM with 115 seats.

While the opposition has a lot of criticisms on most government policies, a medley of criticisms does not constitute an alternative governing programme.

By focusing on (failed) realignment of parliamentarians than competition on policies, and by his adamant resistance to present a lineup of shadow ministers, Anwar has allowed PN and Umno to paint him as “power crazy” and weakened Pakatan Harapan’s ability to rally the public.

Hence, if Muhyiddin is forced to step down, Anwar’s role is likely a catalyst instead of a successor, just like how he helped to enthrone Najib Abdul Razak with his failed attempt to unseat Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Muhyiddin’s fate in his own hands

Muhyiddin’s greatest strength is that his enemies – both in government and the opposition – cannot join forces to force his exit.

Hence, Muhyiddin's fate will largely be decided by himself, who would have two options from now till September.

The first option is to continue his defiance against the palace, the opposition and the public. It is tempting because it gives him a sense of security. He fears that sacrificing the law minister or the AG will only embolden his enemy.

Going on this line, he might use the Covid-19 cases as an excuse to cancel the parliamentary sitting on Monday and avoid any embarrassment. He might test his will against the king’s on the revocation of EOs to see who blinks first.

This week, he could have the police harshly cracking down on the “keluar dan lawan” (come out and fight) young activists and any other dissents.

However, combative politics may only pave way for his ouster in September. Beyond causing public anger to grow, it affects the government’s performance as ministers would be busy watching their back and plotting for their survival or promotion, instead of running their ministries.

The second option is to seek reconciliation with the palace, the opposition and the public, much like what Najib tried by announcing some political reforms on Sept 15, 2011, after his disastrous crackdown of the Bersih 2 rally.

To seek peace with the palace and the opposition, the EOs must be annulled in the Dewan Rakyat, and the minister must own up for his misleading statement.

Muhyiddin must also stop police from harassment and arrest of young activists like Sarah Irdina Mohammad Ariff and other dissents. Learn to live with the #Lawan protests. He must make sure the Home Ministry does not incite more public anger against him, paving the way for his replacement from within the cabinet.

He can instruct all ministers to reach out to opposition MPs and government backbenchers for policy input, modelling on Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin’s cross-partisan engagement of Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming to help in vaccination in Selangor, which has been praised.

Ultimately, to survive the royal speech in September, he must strike a deal with the opposition, at least the sober ones amongst them.

If the royal address shows a roadmap of multipartisan governance, responding to the opposition’s demands from parliamentary reform, equal constituency funding to decentralisation, the opposition will lose the justification to vote it down when they cannot offer an alternative majority government.

Can Muhyiddin survive? Only he can decide, beginning with his action this weekend and on Monday.

WONG CHIN HUAT is an Essex-trained political scientist working on political institutions and group conflicts. Mindful of humans' self-interest motivation while pursuing a better world, he is a principled opportunist.

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