July 15, 2020

MALAYSIA: Parliamentary vote sustains possibility of year-end election

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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Earlier this week, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was able to remove the parliamentary speaker chosen by the previous government by a vote of 111-109 in the 222-seat chamber, with one MP absent and the presiding officer abstaining (which makes the ruling coalition’s actual majority 113-109). The outcome eases the immediate threats to his government – it clarifies that he has the support of parliament after months of speculation and makes a vote of no-confidence unlikely soon, since it is the speaker decides whether one can proceed.

However, the proceedings also showed how contentious parliament can be without a strong government majority. The new speaker and his deputy were installed without a parliamentary vote, on the ground that he ran without a challenger (but more likely because the administration was wary of more close votes). The opposition moved to be allowed to propose a candidate within 14 days to fill the vacancy, but this was also denied after limited debate. Soon after, the pro-government majority immediately concluded the session, despite failing to finish its agenda for the day.

The parliamentary alignments have not budged since the 18 May sitting, when 114 MPs were on the government side (with one later claiming that he had only occupied his seat there because a chair had been allocated for him). Therefore, for the past few months, the prime minister has expended significant efforts to preserve his numbers but has been unable to expand on it despite the opposition disarray. Cabinet members will therefore have to spend their time ensuring parliamentary approval of the key measures to implement the government’s response to the economic slowdown, including USD 10bn in stimulus spending. The government also said it wants a long-term economic recovery plan to be tabled by October. The focus will then shift to the 2021 budget by November.

If he is unable to lure more than a handful of opposition of MPs in the next few months, then Muhyiddin’s incentives become greater to call elections by the end of the year once the legislative calendar is completed, or early next year: the dispute between opposition leaders Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim continues to fester; the ruling coalition’s top two parties, the United Malays National Organization and Malaysian Islamic Party, continue to hedge on choosing him as PM candidate and; Malaysians generally look favorably upon the government’s handling of the pandemic.

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