Datuk Seri Najib Razak (Public domain) AS the power struggle within Umno begins to intensify with month-long divisional meetings set to begin on 9 Oct 2008, all eyes are on party president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and his deputy Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
Najib seems set to take over the Umno presidency now that Abdullah has been forced to back off from the earlier June 2010 handover of power. Some observers say Najib could follow in the footsteps of his father, second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, sooner rather than later if Abdullah chooses not to defend his party post at the March 2009 party polls.
Traditionally, the Umno president has been appointed prime minister by the Yang diPertuan Agong because the party is the dominant party representing the Malays within the Barisan Nasional ruling coalition, and is deemed to have the support of the majority of Members of Parliament.
But tradition may not hold sway in the nation’s current political situation. Even if Najib becomes Umno president, he is not guaranteed the premiership, says constitutional lawyer Tommy Thomas.
In an interview with The Nut Graph, Thomas explains that all bets are off the moment Abdullah resigns as prime minister. It’s the Agong who holds the key to the future of the nation’s leadership.
TNG: Let’s look at the contest of power within Umno. If Abdullah is no longer president of the party, is his position as PM automatically untenable?
Tommy Thomas: Yes.
But that’s by tradition, right?
The sequence of events would be, after resigning or being removed as president of Umno, they would have an acting president of Umno. Because the party cannot be leaderless…they will appoint somebody else, in this case the deputy president, Najib. This is at the party level.
Then Abdullah would have to visit the palace and inform the king that he has lost the confidence of his own party, and so tender his resignation and the resignation of his cabinet. And the king will accept that.
When that happens, there is a vacancy in the office of the prime minister. At that point of time, the king has a free hand, because Article 43(2)(a) [of the Federal Constitution] — the appointing process — comes into play. The king can decide whether he calls the new leader of the Barisan Nasional (BN), which will be Najib; or somebody else who, in the king’s judgment, enjoys majority support in the Dewan Rakyat.
So it is not automatic that the new president of Umno will be prime minister?
No. The king has his discretion under Article 43(2)(a).
Even though by convention, this has been our history?
Yes, but that was because there was no alternative candidate [but now there could be]. The constitution is silent on what happens if the PM dies in office or resigns from office. Both those things have happened in Malaysia. We’ve had one PM die in office (Tun Abdul Razak) and three who resigned: Tunku [Abdul Rahman], Tun Hussein Onn and Tun Dr Mahathir [Mohamad].
In each case, the Agong was not powerless. He did not say, look, the constitution is silent. What do I do? Why did the founding fathers not contemplate this? And the answer is, they don’t contemplate every contingency. You use common sense and the spirit of the constitution. So in each case, there was no panic. The king and his advisors would have said that 43(2)(a) applies because there is a vacancy in the office of PM.
Tun Abdul Razak (Source:
Wikipedia.org) Because in all these four examples, it was always an Alliance government — followed by the Barisan Nasional government — with a very strong majority [in the Dewan Rakyat]; [and] with no credible opposition leader, the king’s task was very easy. It is not so now.
So this means Najib’s position as PM is not guaranteed.
Exactly. He could become either the prime minister or the leader of the opposition.
What can Abdullah actually do if he wished to forestall the inevitable?
As outlined in Article 43(4), if Abdullah himself feels he has lost the majority support for whatever reason, including that he is losing support within Umno, he is entitled to visit the king [to do the following]. He can tell the king he wants to tender his resignation and that of his cabinet because he thinks he no longer enjoys the support of the majority of the lower house (the Dewan Rakyat), and ask for Parliament to be dissolved. And call [for] elections.
He is entitled to ask [which is one of his prerogatives as sitting prime minister]. But it is the king’s prerogative whether to say yes or no. The king can take into account the interests of the nation, economic factors, political turbulence, the fact that elections were held recently, the costs involved, etc. But the discretion is the king’s.
The Yang diPertuan Agong, Sultan Mizan
Zainal Abidin (Courtesy of Merdeka Review) So the king can, at that juncture, accept the resignation of the PM and his cabinet, and then say, no, I am not dissolving parliament, and instead invite someone else to form the government.
That’s right. Or he can agree to dissolve Parliament, and the Abdullah administration will continue as caretaker government [until fresh elections are held].
The other thing I would like to suggest is, in times of crisis, [perhaps] it is a good time for the formation of a national government. A government of all parties — a grand coalition.
We have the example of the Barisan Nasional (BN). After the events of 13 May, Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak formed the BN in 1974 (by inviting opposition parties like Gerakan, the People’s Progressive Party and PAS to join the Alliance; only DAP and Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia refused to join the coalition).
So Tun Razak managed to persuade them, that five years after the 1969 riots, the country still needed a bi-partisan government. Has Malaysia reached that crisis today, where the king can call all the leaders and say, “I want you all to form a national government”?
Then the question, of course, is who will be the prime minister? Will it be [opposition leader Datuk Seri] Anwar [Ibrahim] or Najib or [PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul] Hadi Awang or Abdullah or even [Umno veteran] Tengku Razaleigh [Hamzah]?
So that is also the king’s prerogative?
Yes. Or the other parties can go to him. In Tun Razak’s case, it was the politicians who went to the king.
Former English prime ministers Ramsay
MacDonald (top) and Winston Churchill both
led national governments (Public domain)But I don’t foresee the political parties doing that.
That’s right. But the king can take the initiative. And there’s a precedent in England in 1930/31, when King George IV called Ramsay MacDonald — the leader of the Labour party and prime minister at a time when England was going through the Great Depression — and all the leaders of the other parties together and asked them to form a national government. He called them to the palace and kept them “locked” up for a day and put tremendous pressure on them until they formed the national government, headed by Ramsay MacDonald.
But MacDonald’s own party, the Labour party, was totally against it and expelled him. So he was head of a Conservative/Liberal coalition and governed for four years during the economic depression. And the king’s decision was not challenged in court. They all respected the king’s decision.
And there’s a second example: Sir Winston Churchill during the Second World War when Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, and led an all-party national government. So England has two examples in the 20th century, and we have our own.
So having a national government, what would the implications be?
Well, it will bring down all the political tension, it will bring down all the silly external politicking. The temperatures will cool down. The leaders will have to go into a room and shout at each other and not in public. They’ll have to reach a consensus, a decision and then inform the country. The cabinet will made up of members of all the parties.
They will rule by consensus?
Nobody is talking about this option. They are either talking about a two-party system or a third force.
That’s because they are not students of history. It could be that to have Anwar lead a grand coalition, or to have Abdullah lead, would be unacceptable to “the other side”.
So it would have to be a new face — a third choice. Of course it has to be a Malay — we all accept that — so they might point to Tengku Razaleigh, for example. Then he might say Anwar becomes minister of finance, and Abdullah foreign minister, or whatever. So Abdullah leaves as PM and Najib is appointed defence minister…the main portfolios are given to the senior leaders.
I think the country would welcome it. I think people are tired of all this politicking.
See part II: Choosing the prime minister