Guarantee or speculation?
Writer: Lee Hwok Aun
Published: Fri, 07 Dec 2012
COME Dec 31, if Planet Earth continues orbiting the sun and twirling on its axis, 2012 will run its full term.
Nothing wrong with that as regularity has its benefits. You know precisely when things start and when things end.
Order at the limits allows flux, growth and chaos to fill spaces within, without spinning out of control.
We know Malaysia’s 12th Parliament session started on April 28, 2008, and we have just been told it sat for the last time on Nov 29, 2012, but still we don’t know exactly when it ends.
We are in the dark on when general elections for the next parliament will be held. If it goes the full term until end April 2013, I won’t complain.
There is plenty of good in completing the full five years that representatives and parties were originally elected for.
But that prospect is often met with anxiety or derision, depending on political persuasion, that “delay” in dissolving the House shows weakness.
Some are frustrated at being kept waiting so long.
We widely hear that Datuk Seri Najib Razak has lacked an electoral mandate; he has been dealt a weak hand.
There’s a small ring of truth to that.
The 2008 elections were in some ways a referendum on the Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi administration, but Malaysia does not directly vote for the prime minister. We vote for parties or coalitions, and the leader of the coalition with the most reps becomes prime minister. Subsequent party power struggles and change of leadership do not require that we start afresh with new general elections.
Najib’s lack of a mandate is his personal issue, not a national problem. When he deals two successive federal budgets scented with pre-election potpourri, the looseness of the PM’s term of office becomes a national concern.
But a better solution will be to hold elections at fixed dates, not to hope for them to be held earlier.
A major reason elections have not been called yet, broadcast at the recently concluded Umno general assembly, is disgruntlement in the party and possible mutiny of members not selected as election candidates.
Malaysia is a democracy, not an Umno-cracy. Elections ought to be held when parliament has served a full term, full stop.
The case for fixed term parliament and a designated date for general elections has not been stronger.
We should admit that we have also wanted to get on with the elections, while momentum of social movements like Bersih and Save Malaysia Stop Lynas is strong, popular reaction to corruption exposés is high, and the scope for election fraud is possibly growing.
Imagine the health and development benefits to the nation if election dates were constitutionally fixed, say on the first Saturday of June every four years. Many countries with fixed parliament terms set it at four, not five.
We would not waste time speculating when it will happen (fun as that is, surely we can find other stimulating topics), businesses will not indefinitely defer investment decisions (until “after the elections”), parliament and government can fulfill their contracts, policies can be made and implemented with greater clarity and authority. With certainty of timing, parties can democratise their candidate selection for the next election.
When the timing of elections is entirely in the PM’s hand, selection of candidates gets clenched in his fist.
We inherited the British parliamentary system. Oh dear.
It is fantastically flawed, allowing for big gulfs between popular majority and parliamentary majority (in 2004, BN won 63% of seats with only 51% of total votes), unclear separation of powers and checks against abuse (left to tradition, conscience, and the media), and of course, discretionary power for the PM to dissolve Parliament.
But it’s what we’ve got. And it can be improved, among other things through fixed parliamentary terms.
What if a coalition is elected and then cannot get its act together?
Simple: institute clear procedures for no confidence motions against the prime minister, and for automatic general elections if a government cannot be formed within a time limit.
We have no precedent and only broad constitutional provision for the prime minister to resign if he ceases to command the confidence of the majority of the Dewan Rakyat.
Fixed terms are possible and fairly common among mature parliamentary democracies.
The progenitors of our system recently grappled with such legislation.
In 2011, the United Kingdom passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act overseeing parliamentary terms and no-confidence motions.
It is high time that Malaysia’s leaders, across the partisan divide, pursue similar system upgrades.
There’s no reason why Selangor cannot take the lead at the state level.
It will take a magnanimous act of relinquishing control. The power to call for elections is a major lever.
But it is not all about sacrifice; fixed terms can bind alliances and strike a positive chord with the public.
The outcomes of the 2008 polls, one year ahead of full term, show that calling them early in seemingly favourable conditions does not guarantee success.
2012 anticipated elections, but only 2013 guarantees they will be held, and that’s the guarantee that matters.
Let’s narrow that down to a fixed term and exact date.