Testing times in Parliament

-A +A

KUALA LUMPUR (July 12): Some people believe Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof earned the wrath of Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin when the former accepted to put ex-premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s motion of no confidence — against Muhyiddin — in the original agenda of the May 18 parliamentary sitting.

But it is the same Speaker who rejected Dr Mahathir’s request for a special sitting in March to decide who had the majority in Parliament. That was at the height of the political crisis triggered by the Sheraton Move, when Dr Mahathir was the interim prime minister after having resigned as the head of government.

As many see it, Mohamad Ariff is a Speaker who plays by the rules — a non-partisan Speaker despite being elected by Pakatan Harapan when the coalition came into power in 2018.

However, the government of the day wants him and his deputy Nga Kor Ming replaced with Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun and Umno Member of Parliament (MP) Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said. Azhar recently quit as the Election Commission (EC) chairman.

When Parliament reconvenes tomorrow, the first order of the day will be the tabling of a motion by Muhyiddin to replace Mohamad Ariff and Nga.

This, according to political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat in his article published by Malaysiakini, is unprecedented.

A political observer said perhaps the biggest poser about Perikatan Nasional’s attempt to remove the Speaker is the lack of transparency around it.

“So far, Muhyiddin has not volunteered any answers on why he seeks to have Ariff removed and, come tomorrow, he is still not expected to shed any light on the matter,” said the observer.

By law, according to the observer, the prime minister does not need to explain the move, but many would argue that he has a moral responsibility to explain why he needs to replace a Speaker who has clearly carried out his duties without fear or favour.

A Speaker is elected for a term of the Dewan Rakyat that chose him. His term ends when the House is dissolved and a general election is called.

With all the current talk of a snap election being imminent, one wonders why the government can’t wait for the Speaker’s tenure to lapse and then present its candidate for the post. But of course it would have to win the election first.

As Deputy Speaker Nga sees it, the Federal Constitution only allows a Speaker or Deputy Speaker to be replaced when the position is vacant through death, resignation or the dissolution of Parliament.

As none of these scenarios apply to the current situation, Nga said replacements can only be decided by a House vote.

When the issue cropped up, former MP Tawfik Ismail took to Facebook to say that the parliamentary Speaker is chosen by the MPs. The government can nominate its candidate and does so to reflect the number of MPs on its side. For the record, Tawfik was the Umno MP for Sungai Benut, now known as Simpang Renggam, in Johor and son of former deputy prime minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman.

The votes cast, said Taufik, will clearly show who has the numbers and “Ariff should just sit tight and be voted out if Perikatan Nasional has the numbers”.

Does Perikatan Nasional have the numbers? That’s a big test for the government. So far, the government and opposition have not really shown their numbers in Parliament. If the seating arrangement during the May 18 half-day parliamentary session is anything to go by, then Perikatan Nasional has 114 MPs on its side, while opposition Pakatan has 108.

The test for opposition bloc Pakatan Harapan Plus would be to show unity, now that its Plus allies comprising Dr Mahathir and another five Bersatu MPs — together with Parti Warisan Sabah’s nine MPs — are no more with Pakatan.

Pakatan has made it clear that it will oppose the motion. So too will Dr Mahathir’s independent bloc despite breaking ranks with Pakatan. On that score, they are solid and have passed the test.

But can they get the extra numbers to defeat the motion? It’s hard to tell as the situation remains fluid, said political observers.

A number of political analysts, observers and commentators whom I spoke to are asking the same question posed by political scientist Wong: “What if a miracle happens and the motion is narrowly defeated? Would it backfire on Muhyiddin that a failed removal of the Speaker in turn shortens his premiership or at least forces him into a snap election?”

“The stakes are high, so high in fact that the survival of this government hinges on Muhyiddin forcing through the appointment of Azhar as the new Speaker. Failure to do so could set into motion back-pedallling by Muhyiddin to survive a vote of no confidence on his own tenure as the PM,” said one observer. 

As DAP’s Dr Abdul Aziz Bari sees it, it “looks like Muhyiddin is putting in the motion to avoid or sidestep the no-confidence motion put up by Dr Mahathir. But he may be committing political suicide through a move which he thinks is an escape route”.

Abdul Aziz, who is also a constitutional law expert, sees a defeat for Muhyiddin as a defeat for the entire government and as such would lead to the dissolution of Parliament, although it’s not required by the Constitution.

While the Yang di-Pertuan Agong must have a government, said Abdul Aziz, given the Sheraton Move, “it’s obviously not a good option to appoint a government from the existing Parliament”.

But he also said that Pakatan too would not be able to guarantee stability, especially after Dr Mahathir pulled out and formed his independent bloc.

In such a scenario, said Abdul Aziz, giving back the power to the rakyat is the best option. “Assuming Muhyiddin fails, then he has to seek consent from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong for the dissolution of Parliament,” he opined.

The stakes are high and so are the risks. Muhyiddin, the seasoned politician that he is, knows this all too well. Yet he seems to be willing to take his chances, although he is seen as a politician who plans his moves very carefully.

But then politicians at one point or another take risks, no matter how high the stakes or how big the risks.

Mohsin Abdullah is a contributing editor at The Edge. He has covered politics for more than four decades.