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What the Westminster model really says about who gets first shot at govt

The Westminster model is based on political parties, not coalitions.

Jamari Mohtar
5 minute read

There have been calls by top Pakatan Harapan (PH) supporters like former attorney-general Tommy Thomas and former Bar Council president Ambiga for PH to be given the first go to form a government because it is the coalition that garnered the most seats in the 15th general election (GE15).

This is purportedly based on the Westminster model of democracy, on which our democracy is modelled.

And this call is gaining traction among lay supporters of PH, dejected that the coalition failed to cross the 112 threshold to form the government with a simple majority, or more than 100 seats as confidently predicted by PKR deputy president Rafizi Ramli for it to cross the threshold by combining with other coalitions.

All these look like a desperate attempt to prevent PN from forming the government with other coalitions.

This desperation was seen when Singapore’s Straits Times reported a while ago that political enemies, Anwar Ibrahim, president of PKR, and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, met in an eleventh hour talk as the palace deadline looms.

It’s like two enemies are meeting for the sake their own survival.

PH’s largest component, DAP, agreed Sunday night to Anwar’s move to rope in the Umno-led BN, according to ST citing sources.

But let’s just see how solid the argument is that PH should be given the first go simply because it has the highest number of seats based on the Westminster democracy.

In any democracy, especially the Westminster model, when there is a hung Parliament, the leader of the party with the most number of seats will be given the first go to form a government within a specified period – say three days or one week. 

When the time is up and if the party fails to form the government, the next party with the highest number of seats will be given the go to form a government, and so on.

The best example of this was the one highlighted by Thomas in his recent article.

"Perhaps the closest example would be the position in February 1974 when prime minister Ted Heath lost his majority in the UK general election. From a total of 635 seats, Labour won 301, Conservative 297, Liberal 14 and others 23 seats.

"Heath, a Conservative prime minister, resigned although there were talks with the Liberal party to form a coalition. Instead, Harold Wilson, the leader of the largest party, was invited to form the government," Thomas said.

But what these people forget is that the Westminster model is based on political parties, not political coalitions. Harold Wilson was appointed as the prime minister because it was very clear that his party won the largest number of seats.

Unlike Malaysia, elections in the UK have always been party-based. Coalitions come into the picture not during elections but after the election results, which would then see horse-trading among the parties.

Perhaps it was to prevent ugly horse-trading that the UK monarch decided to invite Wilson to form the government.

Going by this argument, the party with the most number of seats in GE15 is PAS, and therefore PAS should be given the first go to form a government.

This is an apple-to-apple comparison (party to party), compared to Thomas' comparison of an apple-to-orange comparison (party to coalition).

Thomas went on to say that "a strong convention has developed in many parliamentary democracies that when no party or coalition is able to reach the magic 50% plus one seat to form the majority in the elected House, the constitutional monarch (like the UK) or head of state (like the president in India) will appoint the leader of the party or coalition that has the highest seats simply because that person enjoys the mandate from the voters in the just concluded general elections to be given the first opportunity to form a cabinet…"

This is wishful thinking because in the case of GE15, the leader of the party or coalition that has the highest number seats is not the same person. The leader of the party with the highest number of seats is Abdul Hadi Awang, the president of PAS and not Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of PKR.

But Anwar is the leader of the coalition PH that won the most seats. So when to use party and coalition as a criterion for giving the first go? Thomas conveniently ignored this. Why? Because he is a hardcore supporter of PH and an avowed enemy of PAS.

It is also wishful thinking because any party or coalition that fails to get a simple majority of 112 is not considered to have enjoyed the mandate of the people, even if the party or coalition concerned got the highest number of seats.

Moreover, the Westminster model is based on convention whereas ours is a written one where the constitution specifies it is the absolute prerogative of the King to decide who is the prime minister, along with the process to be determined by the king.

This Westminster practice was already violated in Malaysia in GE14 when Umno, the party that won the most seats then, was not given the first go to form the government. 

Instead, PKR with the second most seats was given the first go, which led to the formation of a PH government in 2018.

Granted, in this case, PH had crossed the 112-seat threshold but with a majority so wafer thin that when Bersatu declared it was leaving PH, the coalition lost its majority. Had it been a simple, firm majority, PH wouldn’t have lasted for 22 months.

So to begin with, the majority that PH gained in GE14 was as good as a hung parliament.

It is best in Malaysia that we follow our own model of democracy where it is the Yang di-Pertuan Agong who will have the final say, not only in determining who should be the prime minister, but also on the process to arrive at this decision. 

Leave it to the Istana to decide all this as there were two instances of precedence on this in 2020 and 2021, the former when PH lost its majority, the latter when Muhyiddin Yassin was forced to resign due to the chicanery of the Umno court cluster.  

Questioning this would be tantamount to subverting the king’s prerogative.

So let’s wait for the deadline today, given by the Istana to all political leaders to submit their PM candidate along with their statutory declarations, and patiently wait for the outcome, which will be announced by the Istana.

Even if the announcement says it is PH that will form the government and that Anwar is the prime minister, I would be happy just like I was happy in 2020 when the king announced Muhyiddin as the prime minister and in 2021 when His Majesty announced Ismail Sabri Yaakob as the prime minister.

And please, if this is the case, don’t be rude by calling PH a backdoor government or Anwar a backdoor PM.

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