Take a leaf out of the UK’s book to choose a PM

The United Kingdom is in the midst of a race to elect the next prime minister after incumbent prime minister Boris Johnson resigned on July 7. What makes it an event to take note of here in Malaysia is that — unlike in Malaysia — the prime minister’s resignation was NOT followed by a period of political instability.

Johnson resigned as a result of a wave of resignations from his Cabinet and government which triggered a series of events that led to the loss of support of his party for his premiership. Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad also resigned when he realised that he had lost the support of his then party, Bersatu, which had engineered an alliance that included Umno leaders Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Najib Razak who are facing corruption charges in court.

When a prime minister loses the support of his party or the voters who elected him/her, he/she should resign. That is democracy.

The political instability that followed Tun Mahathir’s resignation is still reverberating through the country while the UK is going through its change of prime minister calmly through an organised, orderly process of electing the next prime minister. That begs the question as to why Malaysian politicians failed to ensure political stability when a prime minister resigned.

There are several factors to take note of to explain this dismal failure in political accountability. Firstly, in the UK government, there wasn’t any predator politician or a cohort of them waiting in the wings to seize the opportunity offered by the resignation of a prime minister to advance their own agendas.

The prime minister resigned but his party or coalition remains the elected government. When Johnson resigned, his Cabinet fell as well but he and his Cabinet remain in government until a new prime minister is elected. That is the democratic convention in a parliamentary democracy-cum-constitutional monarchy.

Johnson’s party, the Conservative Party, is recognised as the elected government and no one attempts to seize the opportunity the instability of a transition offered to force himself or herself and his or her team into government; that’s a coup. The mandate of the people is respected and left untouched while the resigning prime minister’s party undertakes the responsibility of electing the next prime minister.

But, did that happen in Malaysia? No, Malaysian politicians disrespected the mandate of the people and installed themselves as the government as if it were their right, blissfully ignorant of the fact that they were not following democratic conventions and that that is not the rule of law!

Secondly, how did Bersatu president Muhyiddin Yassin become prime minister? Did his party nominate him? What was the process according to the party’s constitution? Was the process of nominating a prime minister described in the party’s constitution? Or, did he assume as party president that position was automatically his, and his supporters in the party went along with it? Perhaps, it was decided at a meeting of his top party leaders but was there a proper nomination and election process?

UK’s Conservative Party has a clear and orderly process with a committee that oversees the election of a prime minister when the incumbent resigns. They go through rounds of election by the party’s elected MPs until the candidate with the highest vote in the final round emerges as the prime minister-elect, which, in the current situation, is expected to be announced in early September. It’s a long and tedious process and no one rushes it, with the interim prime minister and his Cabinet running the government until then.

In Malaysia, prospective prime ministers unilaterally announced they are the chosen candidates of their parties. Muhyiddin never claimed it but through a series of political pacts, he became prime minister. Without following democratic conventions he named Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob as prime minister and Muhyiddin’s legacy of an illegitimate government continues.

Tun Mahathir has said his party wants him to be the next prime minister if his new party, Pejuang, wins the next general election. PKR president has announced that he would reduce petrol prices if he becomes PM. It’s a political party’s right to name its candidate for the premiership. But is it an arbitrary decision or a name that emerges at the end of a nomination or election process?

Political parties need to spell out clearly in their constitutions the process of how to choose a prime minister. It then becomes clear to the public that the majority in the party chose the candidate and it is a choice that must be respected.

The only party that has a clear nomination and election process is Umno. It is Umno’s tradition that the president becomes the prime minister if Umno or an Umno-led coalition wins. How Sabri became the prime minister is a break from tradition. Again it was an arbitrary decision made by Muhyiddin and the country — like everything after the Sheraton Moves — was stuck with an unelected choice!

While the UK’s Conservative Party is choosing its next prime minister, Parliament gets ready for a vote of confidence. Again this is the democratic convention. A government must prove to the people it has a majority and the only way to show it is through a vote of confidence/no-confidence. This is not a negotiable issue and the British Parliament practices it without debate.

Did the Malay-majority government led by Muhyiddin follow this fundamental principle of the rule by a majority which is the basis of any democracy? Definitely no. What followed was simply to use their positions and pacts to ensure they remained in government. The current so-called “Malay-majority” government needs to ask itself if it followed the rule of law or bent it to keep itself in government.

A third factor to note is the role of the Queen. The Queen has not breathed a word about the political changes taking place in her realm. She does not intervene but leaves it to the politicians to resolve the issues on their own. The politicians know their role. They don’t involve the Queen. According to a recent BBC report, once the Conservative Party has chosen the next prime minister, he/she will be invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen who — on the advice of the ruling party — appoints a new prime minister.

Did we follow a similar process? No. Instead, our politicians went racing to the palace to show proof of majority, and, somehow, Muhyiddin, got installed as prime minister although he didn’t prove he had the numbers.

The point is that the party chooses the prime ministerial candidate who then goes to Parliament — not to the king or the royals — to face a confidence vote to prove that the candidate has the support of the majority of the House. When that is demonstrated for the public to see, the invitation comes from Buckingham Palace to meet the Parliament-approved candidate who is then appointed prime minister on the advice of the party.

Malaysian politicians need to understand that all political issues involving the people must be resolved among themselves and finalised in Parliament. They should have enough confidence in themselves to resolve all political crises by themselves without seeking the help of the king or sultans. Then, we won’t have a case of an unmandated menteri besar or one who receives fancy shoes from royals!

Malaysian politicians have to understand how parliamentary democracy-cum-constitutional monarchy works and there is no better example to consider than the people who first set it up — the British.

Hopefully, Malaysian politicians are following the UK PM race and learning how to conduct themselves as responsible self-respecting politicians. If they can’t learn and correct themselves, then, it is crystal clear that they should not be reelected.

Just consider what happened in the past two years: abuse of power through double standards, intimidating political policing, an Attorney-General’s Chambers that allowed out-of-court settlements involving politicians, a Dewan Rakyat Speaker who has failed to understand that his overriding responsibility is to ensure the independence of the House and not to protect the government, poor governance, weak efforts at recovery and bungling incompetence. Only the judiciary remains an uncompromised institution.

The country can’t afford further decline at the hands of this batch of leaders. Only the people can stop them by voting them out and voting in leaders who know what the rule of law is and uphold it. Otherwise, we will be freely offering garlands to monkeys.

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