Partyforumseasia: Malaysia is going to the polls again; parliament has been dissolved last Monday and everybody is speculating about the nomination and election date which will be decided by the election commission. In a commentary on 13 October in Free Malaysia Today, Shankar R. Santhiram comments on the chaotic political situation of the country. Under the headline “The circus is back in town” he describes the usual metamorphoses of politicians as we all know them: “The usually aloof chaps will transform into congenial and convivial fellas. Everybody will now have time to listen to your problems. And every politician will promise that they are the ones who will look after your needs and rights.” What Santhiram describes with amusing irony has a rather sad undertone though, because the country does not have the responsible political class and the government it deserves and needs at a time of too many dangerous uncertainties outside the control of any single nation. The last part of the article gives a good idea of the four competing possible coalition groups and what they stand for – or not. As in many countries in Europe, Malaysia’s political landscape is splintered to a degree that any coalition which will manage to cobble together a majority, probably wafer thin as before, will consist of strange bedfellows. Unfortunately, the democratically unhealthy typical feature of these coalitions is that they are forced to close ranks and make decisions more for their political survival than for the interest of the country.

The case of Malaysia and its political woes and tribulations is fascinating in many ways, not only for the electorate and the political pundits, and the above quoted analysis is a good introduction for outsiders as well. But let us focus on two remarkably unusual candidatures here, the former Prime Ministers Najib Razak und Mahathir Mohamad.

Najib Razak is in prison since end of August this year when he started a twelve-year conviction for corruption and abuse of power (see the previous post for details). This is only the first conviction, a slew of other indictments is pending, and his spend-thrift wife is also confronted with related indictments. The surprising and unusual fact is that Najib is convicted and in prison but could remain a member of parliament, nevertheless. He is still popular with many voters and, of course, his network of cronies who have profited from the money cascade organized by his ruling party UMNO. It was not a Ponzi scheme, no, maybe the opposite. The money was not stolen from trusting investors but from the state coffers and the taxpayers, who did not notice it until the 1MDB scandal came to the surface. At the moment, related tricky business moves are making waves internationally with the vanished billions in a series of military procurement cases involving foreign companies and their bogus sub-contractors organizing the deals. As if the continuing parliamentary mandate is not unusual enough, Najib’s constituency wants to nominate him as a candidate in the upcoming election. The argument is that after being eventually released the elected MP could give up the mandate and pass it on to Najib. Many Malaysians view the urge for snap polls by UMNO leaders as a maneuver to return to power and protect themselves against the pending court cases and further criminal charges.

The second unusual case is the candidature of the other former Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. His has reached the ripe old age of 97 years, and some assume that his political ambition includes the desire to become PM for the third time… When he predicts a possible victory for UMNO in the imminent election, it is rather an attempt to prevent it. He knows quite well that this could bring about a return of Najib. Both of the two would be bad for Malaysia which urgently needs a convincing political leader and a strong and clean government.

At age 97 Dr Mahathir is as defiant as ever

A Majority is a Majority or What?

Partyforumseasia:  Party switching, party hopping, candidates looking for the party which would give them the best chances to be elected, or parties shopping for the most eligible candidates, that all is common in Southeast Asia. The cartoon above by famous Malaysian cartoonist Lat from the 1980s shows the phenomenon in a light way, but Malaysia is going through a much more serious period of political turmoil at the moment. More serious because the switching persons are not just rank and file party members but parliamentarians and even ministers.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin hands over documents to the king in the 18th May session

When in February this year the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir was booted out in a surprise move by defectors who found easy support from the opposition parties UMNO and PAS, Mahathir-ally Muhyiddin Yassin turned into a challenger and was appointed as Prime Minister  by the King without a vote by parliament. The new majority was defined by the King after interviewing all members of parliament personally, and the new majority remains unclear and contested until today. The change of government was criticized as coup and backdoor move by the PH supporters and welcomed accordingly by the losers of the 2018 election, UMNO and PAS. When they found themselves in opposition after the unexpected defeat, and after having sufficiently licked their wounds, this old guard realized that they had lost all their access to state coffers and the lucrative side jobs in government linked companies. UMNO, once supposed to be one of the richest political parties in the world, was suddenly cut off from the money flows. And their former Prime Minister, Najib Razak, found himself in court with numerous charges of corruption.
On the side of the Mahathir and PH supporters, the 2018 watershed election had created high hopes for a more transparent and democratic political style and less race based competition in this multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country.

Mahathir (2)

At age 94 Dr. Mahathir is as defiant as ever

On 18th May, the first sitting of parliament after the switch to Prime Minister Muhyiddin and his Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) coalition, turned out to be remarkable in several aspects:
1. The sitting, according to the constitution, would have had to confirm the new Prime Minister and his government.
2. Mahathir had initiated a no-confidence motion against Muhyiddin for this meeting, which was accepted by the speaker.
3. But the schedule for the sitting was reduced to the introductory speech of the King. Due to the Covid-19 threat, this was the explanation, no debate was allowed after that.
4. The next sitting of the parliament was adjourned to July.

1. The shortened sitting has spared Muhyiddin the no-confidence vote. That might allow doubts on his majority and legitimacy, as well as his confidence in the coalition which supports him. It is indeed wobbly because the UMNO members feel undercompensated with cabinet posts and GLC directorships.
2. Mahathir and his remaining PH supporters feel betrayed and encouraged to sabotage Muhyiddin at their best ability.
3. The top positions in the federal states are being ferociously contested as well. Mahathir’s son Mukhriz is the first victim after losing the majority in Kedah.
4. The beleaguered PKR party has tried to prevent defections after two federal state MPs left. They had made them sign a no-defection clause and threaten them with a fine of 10 million RM (more than 2 million USD). That sounds rather unrealistic to be enforced.
5. The estimated majority of the Muhyiddin government is two or three seats, or the same two or three seats short of the majority, depending on the political standpoint.
6. Wafer-thin majorities, even minority governments, are quite common nowadays all over the world. Malaysia obviously needs more time to get used to it, or make it back to big, clear, and stable majorities. 


Tumultuous Political Landscapes, Not only in Malaysia

Partyforumseasia: With the resignation of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir and his reincarnation as caretaking PM, his Pakatan Harapan (HP) “Coalition of Hope”, fragile as it was from the beginning, looked rather clueless. Plagued by the succession debate, when and how 94-year-old Mahathir would pass on the baton to Anwar Ibrahim as agreed before the election, and the problems left behind by the corrupt previous government, Mahathir and his government could not deliver fast enough on the election promises to clean up the country and stimulate the economy. The media and the pundits are competing with analyses and probable scenarios, leaving the public guessing and more  confused than ever. That is an achievement on the cultural background of wayang kulit, the traditional shadow play, where the audience cannot see what happens behind the screen. Ironically enough, this scenario seems to be back in the era of cacophonic information and disinformation on multiple channels.
But this time the political actors are obviously as confused as the public. This, as well, does not really come as a surprise, on the contrary, it seems to be the new normal in politics, especially in party- and coalition politics in many countries worldwide. First of all, we seem to have arrived in the post-truth era, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The USA being the trend setter, Malaysia has been especially vulnerable with the focus on racial and religious politics for decades which were hiding the rent-seeking interests on the fact side.
The second big change is the weakening of dominant parties more or less in all democracies, especially in Europe. Italy, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and increasingly Germany, have seen a fast erosion of formerly stable party systems and the rise of fringe parties. This goes hand in hand with a clear loss of confidence in the economic and political elites, caused by all too evident shortcomings in political management and judgement by the leaders.
The Malaysian party landscape, in a recent overview published by Singapore’s Straits Times (27/2/2020) which includes only the relevant parties among the full list of over sixty,  seems to show at a glance that coalition building cannot be easy. And the PH coalition was born out of the joint aim of ending the six decades of UMNO dominance and the general perception of its corrupt nature, culminating in the exposure of the 1MDB scandal.
A rough overview of the evolving splinter party scene in other countries:
Italy: 6 major and 30 minor parties
Spain: 14 in parliament, 18 in regional parliaments
Germany: 7 in federal parliament, 43 competing in last election
Switzerland: 15 in parliaments, 17 minor
Sweden: 8 in parliament, 16 minor, 52 local
Thailand: 29 in parliament, 12 with only one mandate
Indonesia: 10 in parliament, about 60 others
Singapore: 2 in parliament, 12 others active, 24 more registered
United Kingdom: Atypical because of the Brexit

Conclusion: Malaysia is far from being alone with a split or hung parliament, unable to decide on majority and leadership but this crisis is extremely serious. After the intervention of the King, the choice of a new prime minister might be determined by the parliament coming Monday, 2 March. The pundit and commentator community is puzzled and contradictory from day to day as “old sly fox” Dr. Mahathir seems more and more unable to control the situation. Malaysia needs and deserves a stable government and not the reincarnation of the old regime. And snap elections if the parliament does not come up with a solution may complicate the situation even further.