Furious politicking over reconvening Parliament

Philip Golingai, The Star

WHICH is the key word in the phrase “as soon as possible”? Is it “soon” or “possible”?

On Wednesday, after a special meeting of the Malay Rulers at Istana Negara to discuss efforts to combat Covid-19, the King called for Parliament to be reconvened “as soon as possible”.

For the Opposition – and Umno leaders who aren’t fans of Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia – the key is “soon”. For example, the Pakatan Harapan presidential council stated that Muhyiddin should not prolong the suspension of Parliament any longer.

On the other hand, the Perikatan Nasional coalition government is focusing on “possible”. Soon is not possible because of the Covid-19 numbers. A day before the special meeting, Muhyiddin outlined that Parliament would open once the Covid-19 situation improves in September or October.

For Prof James Chin, from the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, Australia, the statement “as soon as possible” simply means ASAP.

“The King has previously said that regardless of the state of emergency, Parliament can convene. All the MPs have been vaccinated, there is no reason they can’t push for Parliament to be opened ASAP,” he said.

For Universiti Utara Malaysia political lecturer Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani, the key word is also “possible”. He said “as soon as possible” is possibly linked to the number of Malaysians vaccinated.

“We are targeting 80%, but by the end of the year, the highest we can reach is 60%. We need to cater to the issue of vaccination. If there is an election – for example, the Sarawak election – and if vaccination is not an issue, then the election can be held soon,” he said.

“When Parliament is open, we will know how many MPs support the government and the Opposition respectively. If Umno decides not to support Perikatan, we might have to get ready for a general election.”

(The Sarawak State Legislative Assembly expired on June 6, but it will continue until Aug 1 due to the Emergency. If the Emergency is lifted, the state election must be called within 60 days. Four by-elections are also on hold because of the Emergency.)

Universiti Malaya political analyst Dr Muhammad Asri Mohd Ali says that the phrase is not a titah (order).

“The executive will decide when is the appropriate time. They are not bound. Let’s say ‘soon’ is two or three months from now since it was the advice or opinion of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong,” he said.

“Politicians, especially the Opposition, will say anything to take advantage of recent event. It’s normal.”

So how soon will Parliament reconvene?

Prof Chin said there are many rumours circulating that it will happen on Aug 2: “That is funny as there’s no guarantee. It depends on the Covid-19 situation in July. If it gets worse and there’s no clear recovery, I suspect things will not be as smooth as the Opposition thinks.

“It is the government’s decision, whether they want to have a sitting right now or not. And if they want to delay, they can wait until the end of the state of emergency.”

Prof Mohd Azizuddin of Universiti Utara Malaysia concurred that it is up to the Perikatan government to decide on a date: “If they want to delay it, they can until the end of the Emergency,” he said.

He pointed out that the Opposition has gone on the offensive by saying that the government must listen to the Royal Council and reconvene the august house soon. But the Royal Council doesn’t want to be seen as intervening in politics, he said.

Universiti Malaya’s Muhammad Asri argued that it is up to the executive branch of government led by the Prime Minister to decide when is the appropriate time for Parliament to call for a meeting.

On Wednesday, the Malay Rulers stated that there is no need to keep the country under a state of emergency beyond Aug 1. I asked the three political analysts if they think the Emergency will be lifted on that date.

Prof Mohd Azizuddin believes it will end then: “The Royal Council clearly mentions it.”

Muhammad Asri agrees: “Even though we said the Rulers issued only their opinion on this matter, the executive will agree with it to show their respect for our monarchy,” he said.

“For the Sarawak state election, since the state government’s duration ended early this month, maybe the executive will ask for an Emergency at the state level. Otherwise, Sarawak must hold state elections in the midst of the Covid-19 situation,” he said.

Prof Chin thinks otherwise. He said the government will probably only decide on lifting the Emergency in the middle of July based on the Covid-19 numbers. If infections and deaths are high at that time, it might have no choice but to ask for the Emergency to be extended, he said.

“Obviously, without the restrictions, you cannot control Covid-19. You cannot vaccinate your way out of this situation because even if you look at the government’s timeline, you can only get herd immunity at the end of the year,” he said.

But Prof Chin also pointed out that the government could impose the same restrictions without using the word “Emergency” – “So even without the state of emergency, all the restrictions will be in place,” he said.

The possibility of opening Parliament as soon as possible and lifting the Emergency on Aug 1 have turned up the political heat – which is the opposite of what the Rulers desired, I’m sure. Politicians are back to counting the numbers of MPs they have or could have in support as they speculate about a new government.

Prof Mohd Azizuddin said we’ll know how stable Perikatan is when Parliament reopens.

Prof Chin noted that while some people are excited about a change of government, he doesn’t think it’s that simple.

“If we are talking about a backdoor coup, yes, that’s always possible. But if we talk about a coup through Parliament, I doubt it.

Not in the present circumstances,” he said.

On whether the Perikatan government would survive when Parliament reconvenes, Muhammad Asri said it depends on several factors. Like the strength of the Perikatan coalition, to begin with.

“If they are still intact, and Barisan Nasional or any other component party still supports them, then they will survive,” he said.

It also depends on how far Perikatan can push Parliamentary procedure: “If they can stop a vote of confidence from being held, then they will survive,” he said.

The third factor is the approval of the budget in October: “If the Opposition behaved like it did last October when some of them approved the budget and only Tun M (Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) and few others rejected it, then the status quo will remain,” he said.

“The key players that can pose a threat to the Perikatan government are the Barisan Nasional members of Parliament. Some of them like (Gua Musang MP) Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, (Padang Rengas MP) Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz and a few others have been openly against the government.”

Muhammad Asri added that Muhyiddin and the Perikatan government will use every bit of power at their disposal to make sure they have enough support in Parliament.

“We already saw this when some PKR MPs from Sarawak crossed the floor at the end of last year,” he said.

There’s too much politicking in the country, with some wanting to be PM or in power as soon as possible. But the big concern for the rakyat is that the Covid-19 pandemic will be controlled as soon as possible.