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.
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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