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Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat:
Surprise elections?

(Gift image by iprole / sxc.hu)

(Gift image by iprole / sxc.hu)

AFTER the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research reported in a recent poll that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s approval rating had increased to 72% since April 2010, talk of a general election being called has been circulating. Najib, however, dispelled these rumours, telling reporters that if indeed a general election happened, it would be a “surprise”.

Malaysia’s constitution requires a general election to be called at least once every five years. However, the prime minister can also request for Parliament to be dissolved at any time within that five years. But should the calling of a general election be a surprise? The Nut Graph speaks to political scientist Wong Chin Huat for his views.

From today, Wong’s column Uncommon Sense will be published in a question-and-answer format.  If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail [email protected] for our consideration.

TNG: According to democratic ideals, should the calling of a general election be a “surprise”?

Wong Chin Huat: Parliamentary systems normally do not set fixed terms for the government, unlike in presidential systems [such as in the US, where the legislature and executive are elected separately]. In parliamentary systems, the executive and the legislature are elected by the same elections. Voters elect members of Parliament, who in turn indirectly elect the executive. As Parliament in that sense “hires” the executive, it can also “fire” it via a formal vote of no-confidence or by defeating a major bill, such as the budget.

To ensure the executive will not be held ransom by parliamentarians, the executive normally has the right to dissolve Parliament if overthrown. This was a key constitutional principle violated in Sarawak 1966 and in Perak in 2009. By extension, a government can dissolve the Parliament when it feels its power is waning and cannot rule effectively.

In other words, the power to seek early dissolution is meant to be a defensive weapon for the incumbent. To make calling a general election a matter of “surprise” or “inspiration”, as Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad liked to say, to catch the opposition off-guard is sheer irresponsibility. It is a blatant abuse of power and in contempt of Parliament.

Pakatan Rakyat (PR) Speaker V Sivakumar being dragged out of the House in the tussle for power between the Barisan Nasional (BN) and the PR in Perak, 2009

Pakatan Rakyat (PR) Speaker V Sivakumar being dragged out of the House in the tussle for power between the Barisan Nasional (BN) and PR in Perak, 2009 (Pic courtesy of Sinar Harian)

What are fixed-term elections? Should Malaysia push for them? What are the benefits of fixed-term elections over our current system, where the prime minister has discretion over when to dissolve Parliament?

Fixed-term elections for Parliament take away the prime minister’s power to dissolve the House at whim. Unless the executive loses a no-confidence bill or has a major bill or budget defeated, it would have to serve a full term.

Fixed-term elections disallow the executive to speculate on the best timing for elections. They reduce uncertainty and compel the parties, especially the ruling party, to make decisions [with a long-term view]. They help promote political stability and therefore are good not only for opposition parties, but also for business and citizens at large.

Is there evidence of past Barisan Nasional (BN) governments trying to take advantage of the current system by calling for elections when they felt it would be advantageous to do so?

All Alliance and BN governments have served for roughly four years since 1955. [They never called] for really early elections. They just manipulated the exact timing of dissolution to catch the opposition by surprise or at their weakest moment. This is made possible because our minimum campaign period, under the law, is eight days. Should we have a long campaign period of 42 days, as in 1955 under British rule, [the element of] surprise would likely disappear.

The BN has used this trick at the state level, when it was just a caretaker government. In 1978, the Kelantan state election was held soon after the sudden lifting of emergency rule, which was imposed to remove PAS from power. PAS, of course, did badly in this election.

Given the post-2008 context, it is possible that Najib may dissolve Parliament in the third year, rather than wait till the fourth or fifth year.

Would fixed-term elections fix the problems we have? What problems could it lead to or cause in its place?

Yes, fixed-term elections can partially fix the problem of unreasonably short campaign periods. However, in the long run, both reforms – fixed-term elections and a reasonably long minimum campaign period – would be necessary.

Would they cause any problems? [Well], numerologists would no longer propose lucky numbers to the prime minister, and journalists and analysts would be denied the chance to write such anecdotes.

Read previous Uncommon Sense columns

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade.

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11 Responses to “Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat:
Surprise elections?”

  1. thokiat says:

    Pakatan sepatutnya telah sepakat untuk membubarkan semua dewan negeri pemerintahan mereka serentak dgn PRU13, supaya BN tidak dapat menggunakan 3M kendalian mereka sepenuhnya tanpa segan silu sekiranya Pakatan memilih untuk membubarkan dewan undangan di bawah pemerintahan mereka berlainan dgn PRU13.

  2. Farish A Noor says:

    Note that calling for an early election is not technically illegal as it remains within the scope of the law of the country. Even if there are no precedents in Malaysia, the Malaysian system is based on the British model and Britain did have an early election in 1974 (if I’m not mistaken) when the Labour government was facing pressure from the trade union movement over the coal miners strike. An early election was called after just being in office for eleven months if memory serves me correctly, and the net result was the British Labour government was able to consolidate its hold, but only momentarily.

  3. Andrew I says:

    Yes, especially the last part. People who can see the future of others, and more preposterously the nation, but can’t seem to see their own.

    What a load of codswallop.

  4. voster says:

    The Brits have had a whole series of early elections since the World War, starting with the first post-war government of Attlee, to consolidate its majority.

    But right now, it is moving for fixed-term governments that can only be kicked out with 55% of the legislature in favour of a no-confidence motion, in effect entrenching the government that might be enfeebled by a loss of a majority.

    In a sense, so long as there is still a mechanism to trigger an election on the government losing its strength, the system is workable.

    The US gets around this by having frequent elections for the lower house (every two years) and by its general separation of powers.

    • chinhuatw says:

      @ vosters

      Fixed-term parliament is indeed part of the Lib-Tory deal after the latest elections in the UK. The 55% threshold means the government will not dissolve the parliament unless it is voted out by 55% or more MPs.

      This is to prevent the senior partner, the Conservatives, from dissolving the Parliament unilaterally and leaving the junior partner Liberal Democrats unprepared.

      It is slightly different from the normal consideration to prevent the Executive from abusing its power. Removing the 55% threshold, the Conservatives may tactfully achieve its goal of early elections by tacitly allowing the revolt of some backbenchers causing the defeat of an important bill.

      With a requirement or commitment to fixed-term elections, the ruling party cannot dissolve the legislative without having its image somewhat tainted by a backbench revolt (and winning a bad name for cheating as the public would not be fooled).

      • voster says:

        The 55% does still stand in contradiction to the coalition’s pledge to secure government. The act of pulling the Lib Dems into government as opposed to merely securing its support for supply and confidence bills was executed under the guise of building a stable government.

        But a stable government, by their own conception, cannot exist if an enfeebled ruling minority cannot be removed, perhaps because some smaller parties (such as unionist northern Irish ones) may choose not to lend their support to a no-confidence motion of any form, thus frustrating the 55% requirement.

        The argument that the Conservatives leaving their Lib Dem partners in the lurch by dissolving parliament unilaterally as a justification for the 55% is not quite sturdy, since this will incur the same loss of reputation of losing to a backbenchers’ revolt, as the fallout with the Lib Dems will not serve them well.

        I believe a government that derives its executive from its legislature cannot quite live with the rigidity of fixed-term parliaments.

        An alternative solution would be that the calling of an election must be done six months before the election occurs, with the official campaigning periods remaining as it is. The element of surprise is vastly reduced and the advantage this confers to the incumbent is starkly reduced.

        One might argue that the incumbent still has an edge in being able to time things accordingly, but then again, with fixed election dates, governments can still execute policy based on election timing.

        • chinhuatw says:

          Fixed-term parliaments in the minimum sense should be one that the government has to serve full term unless it loses the confidence of the Parliament. The Lib-Tory pact on 55% is an anomaly indeed.

          I agree with a long campaign period. This alternative however does not take away the rationale for the “minimalist” fixed-term parliaments: the government (at least a majority government) should think and act as if it would have to serve the full term until it is fired by the parliament. This would make politics less flexible but also more predictable, which I would argue by extension, and also more rational.

      • voster says:

        Addendum: That the PM is able to call an election in the UK is only by convention. There’s no reason why a requirement that the cabinet has to collectively ask for dissolution cannot be implemented.

  5. chinhuatw says:

    @ Farish,

    UK’s Feb 1974 elections produced a hung parliament, much like the 2010 elections, except that the Labour government did not form a coalition with the Liberals but rather just survived on a Lib-Lab pact. This vulnerability eventually led to the Oct 1974 elections, which returned Labour as the majority party. I won’t consider the dissolution an abuse as governing was made difficult. It should be noted that under a different political culture, like that in Denmark, minority governments can survive without the need for very early elections.

  6. Ellese A says:

    First, as Farish has said, calling for early elections is not illegal. As far as I know there is no constitutional convention under the British system on this fixed term election. Just a note to Chin Huat and readers: Cameron in 2009 (he was in opposition then) actually demanded early elections from Brown. So where is the ‘abuse of power’ and ‘contempt of parliament’ proceedings in the UK on Cameron? None because there’s nothing legally wrong. If government must abide by full fixed term election, shouldn’t the opposition too?

    Again there is a disconnect by Chin Huat between the premise and conclusion. To show abuse of power and contempt of parliament he should at least provide instances where proceedings for such serious offences have been taken place in the world. After all as a political scientist such instances should be at his fingertips.

    • voster says:

      @ Ellese A,

      Cameron saying one thing in the past and doing another thing is a blatant change in policies.

      But he’s a politician. This is not news.

      The point being made is not whether there is a legal requirement for fixed-term elections, but whether there should be one. The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is going to make it a legal requirement through legislation.

      In short, when discussing fixed terms, it’s not an issue of the past (whether it was allowed) but the future (whether it should be allowed).

      As for instances of abuses, I think you have not given the enough thought to the whole point of institutions or institutional norms.

      It is not about whether an institution has been abused before, but whether it leaves open the possibility of abuse. Giving complete discretion to the PM to set election dates with very short campaigning period can very much be easily used to the incumbent’s advantage, as they can mobilise their political machinery before the dates become public knowledge (and if they use decoy actions, it reduces the reliability of rumours of political mobilisations as a bellwether for election timings).

      It can also obviously lead to the incumbent calling an election when they are flying high in polls, or before a crisis only foreseeable by the government beckons.

      These are indisputable possibilities that the institution of calling early elections allow, regardless of whether it has occurred.

      You build governing institutions with foresight as well as hindsight.

      But if you want an instance, then take the 1990 Ontario provincial elections, when then-premier David Paterson was hitting above 50% in the opinion polls just three years into his government’s term, after which he decided to call an election.

      He did indeed lose, but there is nothing institutional that will ensure voters reject this sort of game-manship. One way to minimise this effect is indeed the fixed-term parliament, although I personally do not support it.


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