The need to resign and the Opposition’s primary task

In Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s address to the nation yesterday when he announced that the government will give free vaccines to innoculate 26.5 million or 80% of the population against covid-19, he also said that when the emergency is lifted he would dissolve Parliament to make way for a general election.

He, I am sure, will keep to his word but I’m a bit perplexed here. When the emergency is lifted, what is the status of the Prihatin Nasional (PN) government he leads now under emergency declared by the Agong? That government reverts to its state of not only being a minority government but one without the authority of the office to remain in government.

The term of the PN government that began when the Agong swore in Muhyiddin as the prime minister automatically ended on Jan 9 when the Machang MP Ahmad Jazlan Yaakub (Umno) withdrew his support for Muhyiddin and the number of MPs supporting Muhyiddin dropped to 110 of the 220 MPs in the Dewan Rakyat. That number dropped to 109 on Jan 12 when the Padang Rengas MP Nazri Aziz (Umno) announced his withdrawal of support for Muhyiddin, leaving the latter with a clear minority. A minority government can not continue to govern unless it has resigned and is reappointed by the Agong for an interim period until a majority government can be formed.

Since the minority PN government did not resign, when the emergency is lifted we will have a minority and illegal government, one without the authority of office to govern. So, with what authority can Muhyiddin dissolve Parliament and call for a general election? If he does, I suspect his decision — like his decision to advise the Agong to agree to an emergency — can be challenged in court on constitutional grounds.

This is common sense. Looking at all the practising democracies of the world, it is clear that there is a sequence of steps that needs to be followed to legitimize a government. Take Itay, for example. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned last week when the small Italia Viva party withdrew from the ruling coalition leaving him with a minority. Subsequently, the process began to form a government with a majority.

Why do PN leaders and their supporters feel they don’t have to follow these democratic conventions? Or, they just don’t know? This is the real reason how PN came to power — not because the previous prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, resigned.

Mahathir resigned because he lost support from his party. But, what followed was chaotic and in the swift succession of events, some constitutional steps were overlooked, either out of ignorance or political expediency. The process to form a new government with a majority begins with the resignation of the incumbent government when it has lost its majority.

It, indeed, will be interesting to see how the courts will rule on these issues and if the judiciary is able to recognize the constitutional relevance of the cases that have been brought to its attention and the urgency of the need to address them. Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Anwar Ibrahim, former Umno leader Khairuddin Abu Hassan and a number of NGOs have started legal proceedings against Muhyiddin and Attorney General Idrus Harun regarding the constitutional basis of their decisions/advice to the Agong.

If the courts don’t throw out these cases, and a clear decision is made, future prime ministerial candidates will know in black and white what they can and should do and can’t and shouldn’t do according to the federal constitution.

So, when the emergency is lifted the first thing Muhyiddin and his Cabinet need to do is to resign and advise the Agong to call on the leader who can muster a coalition with a majority to form the government. Instead of bickering and blaming each other,  the Opposition needs to set their differences aside and present themselves as the only united, cohesive coalition with a majority under one name as the prime minister.

The Opposition has to stop blaming Mahathir for the fall of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. It fell not because he resigned but because Muhyiddin pulled Bersatu out of PH and it lost its majority. Mahathir still got a majority after Muhyiddin was named the prime minister but he lost communication with the Palace and his majority was ignored as Muyhiddin took power.

Subsequently, there were a couple of opportunities when the Opposition could have taken control of Putrajaya but their efforts fell through and that wasn’t due to Mahathir’s doing. So, why aren’t these people being blamed? Everyone knows PKR created a ruckus over Anwar’s position. With PKR demanding a timeline for the transfer of power how could Mahathir be sure of their support?

The blame game will lead to nothing but recriminations and accusations, which means the Opposition will lose the chance to offer itself as a strong and united coalition with a majority in the event the PN coalition resigns from government.

The primary task facing the Opposition now is to reconcile, forge together in unity, agree on one name as prime minister and wait for the PN government to resign.

A general election after the emergency is lifted is bad timing because people would want to first find jobs again and start over their businesses. They wouldn’t want it to be disrupted by an election. It would be better to wait until life goes back to some semblance of normalcy before a general election is held.

A general election now would also mean that political parties as they are now — divided — will be unable to form a majority and political instability will continue unless the Opposition is able to present itself as the sole alternative that has a majority.

I believe the Opposition will have a comfortable majority if they stopped attacking Mahathir and closed ranks and got ready to take over when the opportunity lends itself.

It might come sooner than we think.

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