A telling vote on Budget 2021

OPPOSITION supporters were eagerly waiting for their MPs to oppose Budget 2021 when it came up for vote in Parliament on Thursday. But only 13 MPs objected, which was not enough as 15 are needed to force a bloc vote. The rest refused to stand up and be counted, and the budget was passed with a voice vote.

Philip Golingai, The Star

It was a big let down for Opposition supporters. They had perhaps expected their representatives to be more like Jerlun MP Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir of Pejuang (the yet-to-be-registered Opposition party), who tweeted “Biar mati berdiri dari hidup melutut (better to die standing than to live on your knees)”. He was one of the 13.

Opposition leader and PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has said that he was the one who instructed Opposition MPs not to block the budget Bill.

Should the 94 Opposition MPs have disobeyed Anwar’s instruction?

“Yes, ” said Prof Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development at Sunway University.

The MPs could have chosen to abstain if they feared public backlash, and this would still have revealed the state of support for Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin rather than giving him “a blank cheque victory”, Prof Wong pointed out.

Political analyst Dr Abdul Latiff Mohd Ibrahim believes that a bloc vote wouldn’t have succeeded.

“Anwar had advance notice that the support from certain Umno MPs could not be relied upon. He was risking a last-minute U-turn following the happy tête-à-tête on Wednesday between Umno leaders led by its president and the Finance Minister, ” he said.

“The danger of failure was pretty high, ” he added.

Abdul Latiff argued that by not forcing a bloc vote, Pakatan Harapan achieved – in the eyes of ordinary Malaysians – some respect for not creating a situation that could have undermined the interests of the people who are struggling with economic hardships caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Universiti Sains Malaysia political analyst Prof Sivamurugan Pandian noted that the Opposition doesn’t need to oppose all the time.

“There are times when they can agree to disagree, ” he said.

“For me, they played a ‘functional Opposition’ role throughout the debate process, and the Opposition leader himself decided not to stand because their input was included in the winding up speech by the minister.”

Prof Wong, however, does not buy the explanations by Anwar and other Opposition MPs on why they did not force a bloc vote.

“If Anwar had the numbers, would he care? If he doesn’t, then what held him back is a lack of numbers, not just public or royal backlash. Abstention is always a convenient middle ground. Why didn’t he use this?

“And if they fear public backlash so much, how will they do it (oppose the budget) at the third reading?”

Thursday’s vote was at the policy stage; the budget will enter a committee stage and a third reading will take place on Dec 17; it can be opposed at any point in this process. Yesterday, The Star reported that Anwar “cautioned that the budget could still be blocked when it entered the committee stage”.

Prof Wong argues that Anwar’s weakness was that he did not have a superior shadow budget to offer.

“That is because he didn’t bother to form a shadow Cabinet which could have gathered former ministers to come up with a solid alternative, ” he said.

“Anwar was his own worst enemy.”

Abdul Latiff noted that Opposition lawmakers’ explanations would likely not satisfy their followers who expected a knockout blow. Even before Budget 2021 was tabled, he said Opposition supporters were expecting Anwar to show his numbers, but the PKR leader never did.

“The budget vote would have inadvertently showed whether he has the numbers. But his non-support for the bloc vote shows that the numbers could change at any moment, meaning if Umno MPs aligned with Anwar did not support him, he would fail to bring down the ruling government, ” he said.

“So, in essence, we can conclude that this ‘numbers’ thing is illusory at best.”

Will there be a backlash against Opposition parties, especially PKR and DAP, for not forcing a bloc vote?

“Initially, there would be. No doubt. Already, social media is full of attacks against PH. But as time passes, I believe it will fizzle out, ” he said.

“Of course, Anwar, as a leader, has to bear the brunt of this, and it is definitely going to scar his image for some time to come.”

Prof Sivamurugan said there could have been a backlash if MPs had voted against Budget 2021 as the people are fed up with politics and they want their representatives to focus on the rakyat’s interest.

Prof Wong disagrees, he believes that the Opposition will face a strong backlash.

“That’s clear as daylight. The question now is how to pacify PH’s angry base, ” he said.

“Anwar must forget his PM dream for a while. Work on policy competition. Take the committee stage seriously. Forget about false promises of defections from his Umno friends. Finally, form a shadow Cabinet. Move on.”

Prof Wong said that if Anwar continues with a haphazard leadership style, he should stand down as parliamentary Opposition leader and let someone who can lead a team take over.

The irony of the Budget 2021 vote is that it was supposed to be a de facto no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister, as a stalled budget Bill automatically brings his support into question. But it’s turning out to be somewhat of a no- confidence vote against Anwar.

There is talk that the PKR president will quit as Opposition leader and PH chairman if he fails to prove within a week that he commands majority support in Parliament.

In hindsight, Anwar should have opted to “die standing” – ie, he should have insisted on a bloc vote against the budget despite not having the numbers in support. That probably would have been more honourable in the eyes of his supporters.