MALAYSIA’S political and economic stability now hangs on the developments in Perak.
The Pakatan Rakyat state government has now effectively collapsed because it has lost four state assemblypersons. With the return of Bota state assemblyperson Datuk Nasaruddin Hashim to Umno, the Barisan Nasional (BN) now holds 28 seats — the same number as Pakatan Rakyat — in the 59-seat state assembly. Plus, the BN enjoys the support of three former Pakatan Rakyat lawmakers who just turned “independent”.
It is, however, premature to claim that the state is now in the BN’s hands. A new BN government is only one of the three possible scenarios that could emerge from Perak’s political crisis. The Perak Sultan’s second option is to advise for the formation of a BN-Pakatan Rakyat grand coalition, as speculated by The Malaysian Insider.
Both these options, however, can only be carried out after a formal no-confidence vote in the legislative assembly.
Sultan Azlan Shah’s third option, the most democratic one, is to grant his royal consent to the request by Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamad Nizar Jamaluddin for the Perak assembly to be dissolved so that the state will go to the polls. The new government can be Pakatan Rakyat, the BN, or a grand coalition of both should a hung assembly emerge.
But what is at stake is not only democracy, but also the economy. Given the bleak economic outlook, Perak, and Malaysia, must strive for the optimum level of political and economic stability.
Scenario 1: A BN state government
Should a BN government be installed in Perak as widely speculated, the state is likely to sink into deeper political crisis.
The Pakatan Rakyat coalition with its 28 seats will surely look for every opportunity to topple the BN government, no less by resorting to more defections. The return of the Bota state assemblyperson to Umno’s fold merely suggests the resale value of lawmakers, not their depreciation.
After all, the installation of a new government through defection implies that it is legitimate to trade, and perhaps “traffic”, legislators as a commodity. Why should one be surprised if the four assemblypersons return to Pakatan Rakyat later?
How many times then must Perak change her government within a year? And can a fast-changing state administration spur the state’s economic development in the face of a looming global recession?
For certain, the BN, too, may resort to more defections to strengthen its position.
In 1994, the BN — incidentally under then Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim — successfully brought down the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) state government by inducing 20 out of 25 PBS state assemblypersons to cross over in batches. This was thanks largely to the perception then that Umno/BN would continue to run the federal government forever, making any resistance look futile.
But Perak in 2009 is not Sabah in 1994. Umno running the next federal government is no longer a given. The Pakatan Rakyat has no reason to take whatever happens in Perak lying down. Hence, even if successful, more defections from Pakatan Rakyat would probably anger citizens into civil disobedience, if not mass demonstrations.
The greatest danger of a backdoor state government is that the Perak crisis will spread to Kedah and Selangor, where the defection of four and nine lawmakers respectively from Pakatan Rakyat to the BN will suffice to effect a regime change.
Why on earth would Umno refrain itself from staging the same saga in these two states? And why should Anwar not fight back by engineering more counter-defections?
In this sense, then, the Perak Sultan’s decision on dissolving the state assembly will not just affect Perak but two neighbouring states. If the populous Perak and the industrialised Selangor are sucked into chronic political crises, can the Malaysian economy remain unaffected?
The decision to be made in Istana Iskandariah will therefore be one not for Perak alone, but for the entire country.
The Sultan’s palace (Source: tanah.sultan.perak.gov.my)
Scenario 2: A grand coalition
In comparison, a BN-Pakatan Rakyat grand coalition government would be less harmful. Because of the limited prize involved, the BN would have less motivation to stage similar “legislative coups” in Kedah and Selangor.
It may also dissuade Pakatan Rakyat supporters from staging an all-out confrontation against the party that steals their electoral mandate.
But the state of Perak will pay a dear price in economic development. For starters, the two coalitions would surely quarrel over the allocation of executive portfolios, especially the lucrative ones like land and industry.
Most dreadfully, given the old scores from bitter fights, the executive councillors would likely undermine the work and plans of their colleagues from the other camp.
A house divided against itself cannot stand. A grand coalition government is only possible when all parties demonstrate a basic degree of civility and fair play.
Can Perak — or any other state for that matter — afford strange bedfellows that are at each other’s throats?
Scenario 3: Snap poll
In contrast, a snap poll is the best way to end the existing instability and allow the new government to get on with business.
Why? A snap poll called in this circumstance is almost certain to return a stronger government, whether it is the Pakatan Rakyat or the BN. The electorate would make their choice based on who should run the state.
In February 1974, the UK elections produced a hung parliament and a Labour minority government. When Labour dissolved parliament to go to the polls in October the same year, it was returned with a bare majority that lasted for four and a half years.
Closer to home, PBS won the 1985 state elections but led a fragile government with 25 seats against its archrivals’ 22. When the state went to the polls 14 months later, PBS was returned with a stronger majority of 34 seats.
Going for flash elections would therefore kill the incentive for more defections. The stronger party can form the new government without defections, while the weaker one would find it harder to do so through crossovers. What else do you need to ensure political stability and observation of democratic norms?
This remedy would have a contagious effect, too. If it becomes a norm for the Ruler to dissolve the legislature whenever the government is brought down by defections, then parties would not resort to defections unless they really wanted elections.
This would end the defection talks in Negeri Sembilan as well as at the federal level, and restore political stability until at least one coalition is ready to go to poll.
Saving the economy
In November 2008, Sultan Azlan Shah reminded Malaysians that the interest of the people who elected the government should be prioritised, and the country’s peace and harmony should not be sacrificed because of power struggles among certain leaders and groups.
Such wisdom is what Malaysia needs the most now. A loud and clear message needs to be sent to both Anwar and Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak: the defection game will not be rewarded! Play it, and you will face the electorate’s judgment.
As politicians are letting us down, let’s pray that the Sultan will make the best decision, not only for Perak’s democracy, but also for Malaysia’s economy.
See also: Will Perak snap?
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat rejects regime change through defection not so much because it is morally wrong, but more so because it is politically bad. He is currently based in Monash University Sunway Campus.