A two-coalition system has been entrenched by the electoral advances of Pakatan Rakyat and Pakatan Harapan from 2008 to 2018. (Photo: Manan VATSYAYANA / AFP, Pakatan Harapan / Facebook)

Revisit Two-Coalition System in Malaysia

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The recent jolts to Malaysia’s political landscape show that there is a strong basis for a return to a pluralistic and accountable two-coalition system.

Is it blowback time in Malaysian politics as Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) regime faces implosion?

Sixteen months ago, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, formed after the 2018 general election, fell when it was deserted by a Muhyiddin-led band of defectors from his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat. Muhyiddin hastily assembled an ad hoc Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, chiefly joined by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). On 7 July 2021, however, UMNO’s Supreme Council decided to leave PN and accordingly demanded Muhyiddin’s resignation.

Speculation abounds over a multiplicity of issues: UMNO’s machinations, its leaders’ motives, Muhyiddin’s manoeuvres, the opposition’s intentions, and PN’s future.

Can PN remain in power without UMNO’s plurality of Members of Parliament in PN? Will UMNO leaders who occupy many posts in the Cabinet defy their party’s Supreme Council to save Muhyiddin? Will PN’s shaky legitimacy come under fresh assault when Parliament reopens after many months’ suspension under a state of emergency? If UMNO abandons PN but Muhyiddin refuses to leave his post, what constitutional quandary will arise?

A crisis is looming. But a good part of public sentiment regards the situation cynically. To the man in the street, there is a sense of déjà vu: what goes around comes around. For those opposed to Muhyiddin’s regime, there is a feeling of schadenfreude: there is no honour among usurpers of an electoral mandate.

All this should not obscure the real source of the crisis — the ruin of a framework of coalition politics that had functioned reasonably well for five decades after independence.

Three principal features of the old mould of coalition politics cast by Barisan Nasional (BN) supported stable government and predictable power-sharing.

First, the ruling coalition secured hegemonic stability for the country. Until 2008, BN held a two-thirds majority in Parliament and ruled practically all states. As such, BN quashed challenges to its authority and imposed a “BN peace” on the political system. Within BN, UMNO was the hegemon. Dominant in Parliament and the Cabinet, UMNO laid down the law in power-sharing, policy-making, and the division of electoral spoils. If necessary, UMNO’s leaders let it be known that their party could rule alone.

Second, BN, which had fourteen component parties at its largest, occupied an expansive ideological centre within the spectrum of ethnic politics. The opposition parties were perforce relegated to the discursive margins of the system. A generally effective cooperation among its parties accounted for much of BN’s electoral successes.

Third, BN as a permanent coalition accommodated inter-party compromises on long-term economic and social policies. The secret of BN’s integrity, Dr Mahathir Mohamad said, was to keep its partners “a little unhappy” by meeting enough but not all of their separate expectations.

Today PN lacks the features of the old BN’s coalition politics.

Vis-à-vis the opposition, PN is no hegemon. It is unclear if PN has a majority in a parliament that has been effectively prorogued throughout the coalition’s rule. Nor is Bersatu a behemoth that commands its partners’ obeisance. Rather, some PN partners are “kingmakers” who have the ability to unravel the coalition’s unity unless their demands are met.

As the pandemic surges and the economy contracts, a careworn public is cold towards PN’s fate, seeing UMNO’s antics and Muhyiddin’s tactics as the selfish politics of uncaring politicians.

Moreover, Bersatu, UMNO and PAS, by forming a “Malay-Muslim front”, have migrated to the ideological fringes of ethnic politics. How does that compare with BN’s original scope as a “national”, not Malay, front? How does it better UMNO’s losing electoral strategy of 2008-18 that pushed an exclusive “Malay agenda”?

Finally, PN is, as a journalist calls it, a “ramshackle coalition” born to seize power. What has Muhyiddin’s regime in common with Abdul Razak Hussein’s vision of BN as a grand coalition meant to solve shared concerns at a time of national crisis? 

As the pandemic surges and the economy contracts, a careworn public is cold towards PN’s fate, seeing UMNO’s antics and Muhyiddin’s tactics as the selfish politics of uncaring politicians.

More caring politicians should look beyond what happens to Muhyiddin, PN or UMNO in the near future. Manoeuvring and wheeling-dealing will not overcome the current crisis for long. It is essential to support stable coalitions in three realistic and fair ways.

One: instability reigns when defections can make and unmake coalitions with impunity. What scuttled PH last year haunts PN now. The way to prevent the life of a ruling coalition from being “nasty, brutish and short” is to defend democratically determined electoral mandates in practice since the debates over laws against party-hopping and their enforcement are well-rehearsed.

Two: a two-coalition system has been entrenched by the electoral advances of Pakatan Rakyat and Pakatan Harapan from 2008 to 2018. No matter who rules, there will be a strong opposition demanding a more pluralist system.

Three: it is futile to yearn for the restoration of the old system where UMNO bestrode BN like a colossus. The past two decades have nurtured alternative discourses, reformist visions, and creative modes of mobilisation. These will mould a political framework that rejects any “authoritarian peace” that lacks popular accountability.

Only a more democratic, pluralist and accountable two-coalition system can begin to free coalition politics from conspiracies and implosions.

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