Saturday, July 31, 2021

When should GE15 be held?

The question is, can a general election be held less than five years after the first parliamentary session and if yes, how much earlier?

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Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has made a solemn promise to hold a general election (GE) once the Covid-19 pandemic is over. If the calling of the Sabah election last year is to be used as a precedent, that would mean the daily infection figures would have to trend towards one- and two-digit figures for an election date to be announced.

On Aug 17, the Election Commission announced Sept 12 as nomination day, Sept 22 as early voting day and Sept 26 as polling day for the Sabah election. On the day of the announcement, the daily infection was 12 cases. From then on and up to Aug 31, there were seven days of one- digit infections.

The daily infection started to hit a three-digit figure for the first time on Sept 23 with 147 cases – the first since the conditional MCO in May.

This was one day after early voting. On Oct 1 – five days after the election – new cases hit a record of 280, followed two days later by another record of 317. By Oct 24, it had reached an astounding four-digit (1,228) new cases.

The calling of the Sabah election based on a one- to two-digit infection rate in retrospect was correct. The mistake lay with the politicians of all parties and their supporters who were trigger happy in ignoring SOPs on the campaign trail.

The evidence was found on their social media where they posted pictures showing their total and utter disregard for wearing masks or observing physical distancing, and them breaching the maximum number of people allowed for events while campaigning.

The only exception was the prime minister himself who, when arriving at campaign venues, would go straight to the stage without shaking hands or talking to attendees at close quarters. When his speech ended, he would go straight to his car and leave the venue. And he began all his campaign speeches with an appeal for attendees to observe physical distancing and to put on masks, which he himself also did.

On March 16, new infections were at 1,063 cases, the lowest in many months. So, it will take a few more months for daily cases to reach a consistently two- or one-digit level, hence anyone who talks about holding an election now when the daily infection is still a four-digit number, let alone three-digit, is indeed very irresponsible.

In Malaysia, a GE must be held once parliament is dissolved after five years have elapsed from the first sitting of the parliament that was held soon after the previous GE. Since the first session of the current 14th parliament began on July 16, 2018, parliament will automatically dissolve on July 16, 2023 to make way for GE15.

This is the practice of many parliamentary democracies particularly in the Commonwealth association. But the question is, can a GE be held less than five years after the first parliamentary session? If yes, how much earlier?

The constitution is silent on this, which means there is no explicit prohibition on holding an earlier GE. But one thing is clear, a GE cannot be held if parliament is not dissolved. And the one holding the key to the dissolution of parliament is the prime minister – an advantage of incumbency in a parliamentary democracy recognised by the constitution.

Based on the history of GEs in Malaysia, on the average a GE was held after parliament had entered its fourth year. The spirit of the constitution in having a GE once in every five years is obviously to prevent a waste of resources because it is not cheap to hold a general election.

The Israeli experience is a case in point. The country first held its normal election (as in once in every five years) in April 2019. But because it resulted in a stalemate and no politicians there could cobble up a coalition government, a second election was called in September – five months later. This again resulted in a stalemate, and a third election was held six months later in March 2020.

This also resulted in another stalemate but at least a government was finally formed after the two political parties that had a shot at being the government came to a compromise to form a coalition government in which Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu retained the premiership, with Benny Gantz from the Blue & White party serving in the specially created role of alternate prime minister for the first 18 months of the term, before taking over the top job for an equal period.

But just months later, the Netanyahu-Benny Gantz government collapsed because Netanyahu reneged on a pledge in the agreement to pass a two-year budget, and so, Israelis once again, for the fourth time in two years, will be going to the poll on March 23 – barely a week from today.

In Malaysia, the cost of holding GE14 was RM500 million, and according to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Takiyuddin Hassan, it could cost RM1.2 billion to hold a GE at this time.

Imagine if Malaysia were to hold four GEs in two years just like Israel. The cost would balloon to RM4.8 billion. And this should not be discounted because it has become a norm since GE14 for a government with a slim majority.

This could be the reason why, when former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad resigned in February 2020, he didn’t request for a dissolution of Parliament because it was just barely two years after the previous GE. Of course, in hindsight we could say the reason was also due to his politicking to have a go again at the premiership without a GE with a unity government.

The purpose of any GE is primarily for the current government to get a renewed mandate from the people, and if it fails to get that mandate, regime change will occur. But does that mean renewal of mandate or especially regime change must always be preceded by a GE?

At any time before a GE is due, when no politician in parliament has the requisite 111 MPs to back him as prime minister, that signals the fall of the government. In such a case, the constitution allows the king to appoint any MP that in His Majesty’s judgment would be “likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members of the House”.

Is such a prime minister appointed through this constitutional provision a backdoor prime minister and his government a backdoor one? Obviously not, if one understands democracy to mean also a government elected/appointed through the rule of law as embodied in the constitution.

When the people gives their mandate to a government via a GE, that mandate also includes the mandate to abide by the constitution, ie. the mandate is withdrawn once the elected government fails to achieve a majority as provided for in the constitution, and a new government appointed in accordance with the dictate of the constitution is a legitimate government mandated by the people.

That is how the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government came into power when the mandate of the people of the previous Pakatan Harapan government was forfeited when the latter found itself in a minority position, and the mandate of the people automatically went to the new government which was appointed through the due process of the law.

According to academic Chandra Muzaffar, the PN government came into being through the front door of the palace. So, it is not a backdoor government, neither is it an illegitimate government.

Jamari Mohtar is director of media & communications at independent think tank Emir Research.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.

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