Peaceful transitions

PRIME MINISTER Datuk Seri Najib Razak said this week that a weak government owed to a reduced parliamentary majority would mean instability and uncertainty, in a bid for greater support for his Barisan Nasional coalition.

Surely he ought to realise that it is the indecision over when the election itself will be held that has contributed to this situation of uncertainty.

Such political risk could have been avoided by a straightforward announcement ahead of time of the election date instead of allowing this continued speculation for well over two years.

There is a wide range of opinion as to how the electoral outcome will affect national stability, in terms of both social and economic effects. For instance, Credit Suisse reported that foreign investors in Malaysia may do a good deal of selling ahead of the general election in light of such political risk.

According to the Wall Street Journal, foreigners hold around 25% of overall share capital in Malaysian banks, “the highest level since the global financial crisis”. Analysts such as MARC also predict that the ringgit will weaken over political developments relating to the election.

However, one must be careful not to equate the high political risk involved in an uncertain election outcome with that of instability due to a possible government change.

The adverse economic impact would come about mainly because this has never taken place before, and without any precedence, it is difficult for people to imagine being governed by any other political coalition.

A recent public forum organised by Institut Rakyat, Penang Institute and the Islamic Renaissance Front discussed this matter.

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat, reminded the audience that a peaceful transition from one government to another would really reflect upon a mature democracy.

This is true, since if the system itself has in-built robust mechanisms to allow for a transfer of power, then there really is no need for fear – the kind of fear that incumbent governments are wont to drum into voters to have them cower under, all for the sake of prolonging their positions.

Titled “Economic Management during Political Transition”, it was a valuable opportunity to discuss what kind of economic policy would prevail should there be a change in government.

Malaysia’s institutions seem to be strong enough to withstand any major shocks. Indeed, the World Bank did say that Malaysia has a large capital market, strong institutions, sophisticated participants and high quality accounting practices. In short, the economy will not collapse should there be a change in government.

Panellists also spoke of experiences from other countries which had also gone through political transition.

One particularly interesting insight was from Professor Woo Wing Thye from Penang Institute, who showed how leaders in autocratic regimes would fail in their attempts at reforming their countries, as long as they were nominees of the previous government.

For example, this was one of the factors that allowed reform in China: Mao Zedong’s appointed successor Hua Guofeng failed, but Deng Xiaoping who deposed him succeeded.

Likewise, politicians in Malaysia should note that any reform must be led by a leader who is not tarnished in any way by the acts or wrongs of its predecessor. Whichever coalition wins, the appointed prime minister would do well to remember this.

On a final note, it is no longer an excuse that because Malaysia follows the British parliamentary system, therefore the executive body can arbitrarily set the election date, which is the current custom.

The United Kingdom’s Parliament passed the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 that introduced fixed-term elections. According to this law, barring certain exceptions, polling day would occur on the first Thursday in May of the fifth year after the previous general election.

Parliament would automatically dissolve 17 working days before polling day.

For the sake of certainty and stability, which the prime minister prides himself on assuring, this may be a welcome step in the right direction.

In memory of the late Zainon Ahmad, or Pak ‘Non, who helped me believe in Malaysia.

First published in theSun on Friday, 29th March 2013

Tricia Yeoh blogs on triciayeoh.com

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